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Introduction to the Hindi Language

By the year 2030, India will likely have surpassed China in terms of population, becoming the most populous nation on earth. Hindi is the major language of the continent and the most widely spoken language in South Asia. Although India is home to over a dozen languages, Hindi has become the language of its modern media, including television and film.

Hindi is an Indic language that descends from Proto-Indo-European through Vedic Sanskrit, Middle Indic, and Sharauseni, the main language used in medieval Indian drama. Prior to the partition of India in 1947, the language was called Hindustani; after the partition, the language of Pakistan and Bangladesh became commonly known as Urdu, written with a different script but still largely understood by Hindi speakers.

By best estimates, Hindi is spoken by 180 million people. According to the 2001 census, 258 million people recorded their language as “Hindi”, but that includes over ten dialects, some of which can be considered separate languages. It is the official language of India and a common second language of Mauritius, Fiji, Trinidad, Guyana, and Suriname. Hindi is also spoken in Nepal, South Africa, the UK, the US, Yemen, Uganda, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, and the United Arab Emirates. The vocabulary of Hindustani or Hindi-Urdu includes loan words from Sanskrit, Persian, Turkish, Arabic, Portuguese, and English.

There are very few similarities between English and Hindi apart from words that English has borrowed, such as bandana, bangle, basmati, cheetah, chintz, chutney, coolie, cot, cummerbund, dungaree, Himalaya, jodhpurs, juggernaut, jungle, loot, mahout, pukka, punch, pundit, samosa, sari, sentry, shampoo, and thug.

Hindi is probably one of the more difficult languages for an English speaker to learn. The good news is that learning any language, no matter how different from your own, is only a matter of consistent, diligent practice. When it comes right down to it, Hindi is no more difficult than English—remember that any four-year-old in India speaks better Hindi than most foreigners who have studied it. If children can do it, so can you.

Here are your major obstacles to deal with:

1) The writing system. Hindi is written with the Devanagari script. “हिन्दी” is the word for “Hindi”. Each letter is a consonant that includes an inherent schwa (ə) vowel (pronounced “uh”), and vowels are added by modifying the consonant character or adding an additional one. There are many combinations of letters that have different shapes as well. It is not absolutely necessary to learn to read Devanagari if all you want to do is be able to speak and understand, but if you are planning on visiting India or living there for any length of time, it’s worth the effort.

2) Pronunciation. Hindi has about half as many vowels and about twice as many consonants as English, and some of these consonants are sounds that English speakers never make.

3) Grammar. Hindi word order is Subject-Object-Verb, as opposed to the English Subject-Verb-Object; Hindi uses the subjunctive mood, which is not common in English; and prepositions in English actually become postpositions in Hindi, meaning they come after the noun they are associated with. There is no definite article (the) in Hindi, and all nouns have gender, either masculine or feminine.

How long is learning Hindi going to take? Probably about a year of intensive study for basic conversations and two years or so for being able to handle unfamiliar situations. But know that mastery of any foreign language is the journey of a lifetime—the longer you study, the better you’ll get.

As you study Hindi, you will learn much about Indian culture. Whereas American culture celebrates individuality, Indian culture emphasizes established hierarchical relationships. Religion, education, and social class all influence social interactions in India. Indians are conscious of social order and their status relative to other people, be they family, friends, or strangers. All relationships involve hierarchies. In schools, teachers are called gurus and are viewed as the source of all knowledge. The patriarch, usually the father, is considered the leader of the family. The boss is seen as the source of ultimate responsibility in business. Every relationship has a clear-cut hierarchy that must be observed for the social order to be maintained.

Hindi Word Examples

horse: घोड़ा (ghōṛā)

mother: मां (māṁ)

father: पिता (pitā)

tea: चाय (cāya)

come: आना (ānā)

teacher: शिक्षक (śikṣaka)

friend: दोस्त (dōsta) 

Useful Hindi Sentences

Hello. नमस्ते (Namastē.)

What is your name? तुम्हारा नाम क्या है?  (Tumhārā nāma kyā hai?)

My name is … मेरा नाम है   (Mērā nāma hai…)

Good morning. शुभ प्रभात (Śubha prabhāta.)

Goodbye. नमस्ते! (Namastē.)

Where is the toilet?  टॉयलेट कहाँ हैं? (Tāyalet kahāṁ haiṅ?)

I don’t understand. मैं नहीं समझा (M) / मैं नहीं समझी (F) (Maiṁ nahīṁ samajhā. (M) / Maiṁ nahīṁ samajhī. (F))

Learning Hindi could be one of the most challenging things you have ever done. On the other hand, it may be one of the most satisfying, and it will set you apart from a large percentage of the rest of the world.