My Hindustani language learning journey has included multiple lightbulb moments, times when suddenly some pattern finally made sense and forever after became easier. Here are my top 10 discoveries:
1. Long vowels vs. Short vowels: In English our accents are determined by how we pronounce vowels, but the consonant sounds remain fixed. Take the word “bag” for instance, for which you’ll find many different vowel sounds across the US and other English speaking nations. Hindi-Urdu, however, is the opposite – it’s the consonants that are flexible while the vowels remain fixed! For example, “zyaadaa and jaadaa” are understood interchangeably. If we want to speak intelligibly, it’s critical that we nail our vowels, especially getting the difference between long and short “a’s.” The word mother, for example, is pronounce with a short “a” (ammi) not a long “a” (aammi). When learning new words, don’t just concentrate on consonant sounds, pay careful attention to vowels as well.
2. Commands: I often got confused early on by different forms of commands. I soon realized the four different levels of commands, from highest respect (kariyega) down to the aap form (kijiye) to the tum form (karo) to the tu form (kar). But I also discovered three other forms: 1) the infinitive form of the verb (karna) can also be used as a command, with the sense of being less forceful, 2) The subjective form (karen) of the verb can be used, also indicating a fairly high degree of politeness. 3) Asking a question, “Kya aap ye karenge?” or “Kya aap ye kar sakte hain?” is another way to ask someone to do something. As I began to hear these forms in more and more situations, I began to understand where they belong best.
3. Communicating Obligation. In English we have statements like, “I should…” and “I must…” and “I have to…” They communicate a sense of obligation. In Hindi-Urdu there are several ways these can be communicated. “Mujhe jana hai” is like “I have to go.” “Mujhe jana padega” is like “I must go.” And “Mujhe jana chaiye” is like “I should go.” Once when I left a house I said, “Main jaana chahta huun,” and was rebuked for making it sound like I was desiring to leave (as if I didn’t like the people I was with!), rather than communicating that I was obliged to go because something else was forcing me.
4. THik hai: There are 4 “t” sounds in Hindi. One way to practice every 5 seconds is to realize that “thik hai” is an aspirated, “roof-of-the-mouth” form of the “t” sound. So start today saying “THik hai” the right way.
5. Asking for Permission: We often revert to forms of “sakna” to ask for permission, when sakna is more about ability. Even in English we’ve grown lazy by using “can” when we should use “may.” May I go in? vs. Can I go in? In Hindi-Urdu, using the subjunctive form (future tense minus the “ga”) helps a lot here. May I go in? becomes “Andar jaun?” May I get it done? becomes “Main karwa duun?” Not only will this help you ask for permission, but you’ll find that many people will ask you for the “go-ahead” by using this form.
6. Chaiye with a noun vs. with a verb. “Chaiye” as in “Mujhe ___ chaiye,” sits in a middle ground between want and need. Once I figured out that it can mean either, I had to figure out a second complication – that it means something different with a noun and a verb. “Mujhe chai chaiye” means I want/need some chai. But mujhe chai pina chaiye means “I should drink some chai.” If I want to say, “I want to drink some chai” I can say, “Main chai pina chahta huun.” Once this was clear in my mind, I started getting what I wanted more frequently!
7. Subjunctive case after “chahta” and “taki”: Like mentioned earlier, the subjunctive case of a verb is the future tense minus the “ga/gi/ge.” It’s the grammatically correct form in multiple instances, such as asking permission. But it also gets used in another place. If your full sentence includes a verb after “chahta” or “taki,” then you can be 100% sure you should use the subjunctive case. “Main chahta huun ki ham pahle kuch khana khaen.” Note that “khaen” was used instead of “khaenge,” And “Ham khana khaenge taki hame bhuk na lage.” Notice “lage” was used instead of lagegi.
8. Ke paas: In English we use “have” to indicate possession of something. Although sometimes “ke paas” is necessary, in some cases Hindi-Urdu takes the shorter route and doesn’t use “ke paas.” For instance, Mere teen bacche hain. Literally we’re saying “My three children are.” But it’s the most common and appropriate way to express, “I have three children.”
9. Drop the “hona” when negative: The more I listened to native speech, the more I realized that oftentimes the form of “hona” is dropped when speaking in the negative. Instead of saying, “Vo nahi jaanta hai,” many Indians will just say, “Vo nahi jaanta.” Instead of saying, “Vo nahiin ja raha hai” they say, “Vo nahiin ja raha.”
10. Order doesn’t matter: Early on I stressed a lot about getting all the words in proper grammatical order. That was okay for short sentences, but my brain lost track if there were more than about 2 or 3 components to my sentence. Then one day someone told me to stop stressing and just say the part of the sentence that came first, and then fill in the other parts. I started to realize that Indians do this all the time. “Vo kurta chaiye mujhe laal wala” grammatically should be “Mujhe vo laal wala kurta chiaye,” but everyone on the street would know exactly your intent. I also realized that it’s okay to drop certain parts of the sentence, “Laal wala chaiye” and my point got across just the same. So stop stressing about getting everything in order you might find your fluency increases!