By Anjum Altaf
As an Urdu speaker, I had always felt it would be simple to learn Hindi and Farsi. The first shares the grammar and much of the essential vocabulary, differing only in script; the second shares the script and a considerable number of words, differing in construction of sentences and manner of speaking. My attempts to transform resolve into results yielded both confirmations and surprises and taught me something about learning, about languages, about our world and about myself.
I had always believed Hindi would be easier to learn than Farsi, but not by much. I felt I could learn Hindi within a month and Farsi within six. My Hindi-speaking friends tried to disabuse me by regularly tossing alien and tough-sounding words in my direction. I kept reminding them that I was fluent in English, yet did not know the meaning of many words. All that implied was the need for a handy dictionary if the context failed to provide sufficient clues. As for Farsi, I did not have any Farsi-speaking friends to guide me in any way.
As it turned out, Hindi did not require any learning. It was simply a question of mastering the mechanics of a different script, associating a particular shape with a particular sound. It took me all of one week in cumulative time using freely available material on the Internet to be able to start reading the BBC Hindi news feed and to write simple sentences without making egregious mistakes. From there on it was just a matter of practice. Thanks to the advances of technology, I didn’t even need a dictionary. All that was required was to cut and paste an unfamiliar Hindi word into the Google translator; it would not only pop back the meaning but spell the word phonetically and verbalize it to eliminate any errors.
On the other hand, Farsi was indeed like learning a new language where method mattered. Without guidance and deceived by the superficial similarities I went off on the wrong track. After nine months I was still struggling, repeatedly memorizing and forgetting the construction of simple sentences let alone mastering the conjugations and the tenses. This, despite investing a few hundred dollars on the highly recommended Rosetta Stone software and working with a much-touted Internet resource.
I take away a number of thoughts from this experience that might be of interest to others.
First, the experience confirmed the nature of my relationship to Indo-Persian civilization. I have borrowed a lot from Persia but my roots are in India. I don’t know about others but for me this is an important confirmation that keeps me from psychic schizophrenia. A denial of one’s roots, whatever the attitudes and realities of the present, is an invitation to a crisis of identity that we can ill afford. The science of languages provides support in its own unemotional manner. The Indo-European language tree has an Indo-Iranian branch which further splits into the Indic and the Iranian groups. Hindi and Urdu fall in the Indic group while Farsi is in the Iranian group. It should therefore be natural for an Urdu speaker to be more in harmony with Hindi than with Farsi.
Second, given the above, it was shocking to realize how political small-mindedness has kept us from healing our identities and its high cost in exacerbating the psychic schizophrenia. If all it takes is less than a month of mastering mechanics for an Urdu speaker to become conversant with Hindi (and I would presume it would be the same the other way around), why have we denied opportunities for our citizens to do so? A month-long course during the summer vacations could have had almost the entire student population of Pakistan with a working knowledge of Hindi.
Would this have made a difference? Engagement and familiarity always make a difference. Just imagine the mindsets of our young population had they been raised on a diet of Bulleh Shah in school instead of the substitutes that were favored by the guardians of the state. The choice to divide or unite is a political one and individuals are pawns in that determination unless they realize the nature of the game being played.
Third, languages are learnt best at an early age. Till my grandparents’ generation many individuals in India, irrespective of religion, learnt Persian at school or college without much difficulty. Quite independent of one’s identity, an alien language can be learnt relatively easily at an early age. The question that needs investigation is whether learning a foreign language, in turn, shapes the emergent identity and, if so, in what way? If we in Pakistan had all grown up reading and writing Hindi (or Bengali, for that matter), would we have been different human beings in some profound way?
Fourth, the relationship amongst languages is a fascinating subject in its own right. The solution I stumbled upon in my struggle with Farsi alerted me to this dimension. Having given up my attempt to learn Farsi, I turned to Pashto instead and made much faster progress because I had a greater prior affinity with the language. Surprisingly, I found that learning Pashto began clarifying puzzles about Farsi that had stymied me earlier.
A little digging revealed that Pashto belonged to the Iranian and not the Indic branch of the Indo-European language tree. Thus, for an Urdu speaker, it was an ideal bridge to Farsi. It shares the sentence structures and the conjugations without being totally strange to the Urdu speaker. In addition, quite unlike Farsi it has all the retroflex sounds of Urdu and Hindi. I suppose just the fact that many Urdu speakers in Pakistan have heard Pashto sounds and expressions in childhood make its linguistic patterns partially hard-wired and thereby more amenable to formal learning. For me, the fact that Pashto is a lot less standardized actually began to make Farsi easier to comprehend and appreciate. Thus, it is possible for a more difficult but familiar path to lead one faster to a destination which seems an important insight into the dynamics of learning.
How do I see myself in the midst of this journey? An Urdu-speaking Pakistani with his roots in Indian soil recovering his Persian heritage via a bridge that was always present but invisible to the intellect; An Urdu speaker aware of the power of language to dissolve differences; And a Pakistani conscious of how his education has been stolen and manipulated for ends that he did not support or share.
It has been a journey full of learning and self-discoveries that I could not have imagined at its beginning.
See the next step in the journey: Cracking Urdu: A Guide for Those Who Know Hindi
As a result of the response to this post we have started an innovative Language Exchange learning initiative. Do take a look and contribute your suggestions.