“Me tumse pyar karti hu” and “aap pagal hai? Me pagal nahi!” were the first Hindi sentences I learned. For some reason, the people who taught me these sentences thought it would be the perfect first-few Hindi lines for me. Almost a decade later, the only other Hindi phrase I could say with confidence was kitna hai? In nearly ten years of living in India, I only knew three sentences, two of which were practically useless.
You see, Hindi was as foreign to me as Polish is, or Japanese is to me. Besides the word jalebi— which I used to pronounce as jubilee— I didn’t know anything else. Truth be told, I did not know anything India until I boarded a plane to Delhi. After my arrival, I had the perfect excuse to why I never learned to speak Hindi, “I’ve always lived in a multicultural environment that required me to speak in English,” an expat bubble, so to say. Speaking to vendors, cab drivers, auto-rickshaw drivers, and even police officers for instructions was a task. The frustration to be understood was real, as if I was entitled to be understood.
Fast forward to four months ago, after moving back to Delhi, I was living alone and trying to navigate my way around the culture and language all over again. This time, I did not have the safety net of a family to help me express myself in the local language, nor did I have a flatmate, who was better at Hindi than I was. Often, I would have to call friends over the phone, or patch them into a call to speak to whoever. It was always a hassle. If that wasn’t complicated enough, I started working at an agency where everyone often conversed in Hindi, even in meetings. It felt like the universe was conspiring against me. I had no choice but to pick up Hindi! As I write this, my knowledge of Hindi words has increased, I understand some of the numbers, though I still find pachas (50) and chalis (40) confusing, I understand everything else under 50. I’ve also started learning how to say other phrases that are more useful, like “khaana khane chalo,” “kaha pe ho?” And other less useful lines such as “sale, mera bi khale.” I can manage to put together a bunch of words and say what I need to say. I’ve yelled “aap pagal hai?” at an autorickshaw driver for overcharging me, while storming away with a big grin because I was finally able to use that phrase— I felt victorious. Though not understanding word by word, I now get the gist of what people are saying. One thing I noticed immediately, after learning to express myself in Hindi better is how people no longer seemed rude. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of them still are, but I had a slight change in perspective.
Learning the local language goes beyond merely communicating with ease, it opens you up to understanding the culture and society deeper, until you’re no longer the foreigner who speaks to them with an accent, but the foreigner who understands them.
It’s not news that there is an intimate link between a language, the person speaking it, and the culture around them. When we speak, or even attempt to speak, a dialect that is foreign to us, we’re embracing a part of the culture attached to the language. Hence, when we, as expats, try to speak a language local to the community we live in, a cultural barrier gets broken down, and we become more relatable to the community around us and vice versa. And while living in our expat bubbles seem more convenient and more natural, we didn’t move to India to do that, did we?
In his book Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood, Trevor Noah says, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” Learning the local language goes beyond merely communicating with ease, it opens you up to understanding the culture and society deeper, until you’re no longer the foreigner who speaks to them with an accent, but the foreigner who understands them.
We’ve added a few important and easy Hindi phrases for you to learn. Download it here.
Me tumse pyar karti hu. – I love you.
Aap pagal hai? Me pagal nahi. – Are you crazy? I’m not crazy.
Kitna hai?- How much?
Khaana khane chalo!- Let’s eat!
Kaha pe ho? – Where are you?
Sale, mera bi khale! – *****, eat my food too!