Monday, June 20, 2011


by Gina Sestak

"Open sesame."  "Presto Chango."  "Abracadabra."

We're all familiar with the power of magic words.

It seems to me, though, that every word is magical.  A squiggle on the page, a tickle on the eardrum, can convey a complex meaning.  Every word is freighted with connotations and somewhere, deep in the recesses of our subconscious mind, we've all been programmed by words.  The language we speak colors the way we see the world.

I've always been fascinated by languages.  Before I realized that I have absolutely no talent for learning them, I used to fantasize about becoming a translator.  And so I studied Latin and French in high school, more French, Spanish and Russian in college.  I tried to learn.  I really did, but it seems as if my brain has two compartments:  "English" and "Other Stuff."  So when I'd forget the Spanish word for "rain" I'd just plug in the Russian one . . .

I've tried to learn Greek and Danish before trips to Greece and Denmark.  No luck.  So why, I wonder, have I now embarked upon trying to learn an even more difficult language?

For the past several months, I've been using the Pimsleur method to study Hindi.  Pimsleur is one of those programs that promises you'll learn a language in a week.  It's been months.  Instead of covering a half-hour lesson every day, I've had to repeat every lesson for at least a week before it started to sink in.  I'm only up to No. 14 of 30, and I can't pronounce anything correctly.  NOTHING.

Hindi sounds are different from English sounds.  Worse, I have trouble hearing exactly what each sound is.  Listening to the same speaker on the same CD, it sometimes sounds as if she's saying t and sometimes d, and so I figure that it must be something in between.  Same goes for another sound that seems to be a cross between k and g.   Then there's the one that seems to be triangulated in the center of t, d, and th.  My tongue doesn't work that way!

I'm really not aiming to learn to speak Hindi, though.  I'm trying to learn to understand enough that I can watch Bollywood films without having to be so dependent upon subtitles.  So far, I've been able to pick up some words.  I can comprehend fragments of the dialogue: but, and, or, tonight, eat, and things like that, but it would be a boring movie if the characters spoke like the Pimsleur lessons:

     "How are you?"
     "I am very well."
     "Do you want to drink something?"
     "Yes.  I want to drink some tea.  Do you want to drink something?"
     "I want to drink some coffee in the restaurant."

Understanding spoken Hindi is challenging enough.  I haven't even tried to learn to read - it's written in an entirely different alphabet, the Devanagari.  It looks pretty on the page, but it may as well be Greek to me.*  Here's an example - the word Om:

*Actually, when I was in Greece I found that I knew enough about the Greek alphabet to sound out words and sometimes guess their meanings.

At this point, you're probably wondering: What kind of flaming idiot tries to learn an entire language just to watch movies in it?

The answer is: me.


Annette said...

Gina, you need to take a class from the American Sanskrit Institute. They used to have them locally, and I'm sure they still do. It's not exactly Hindi, but you'll learn how to make and understand the different sounds, which should help with what you're trying to do now. I can't imagine trying to learn it from a CD. I used to be able to chant the Sanskrit alphabet, but now I can manage the first six letters before I get lost. Maybe I should take the class with you as a refresher!

Gina said...

Annette -
Yeah, I definitely need help on that pronunciation but is Sanskrit close enough? I'm thinking it's something like Church Latin v. modern Italian.
BTW, you're welcome to come by and listen to the Pimsleur CDs at any time or, better yet, watch Bollywood films. Not much yoga in them that I've noticed, but a lot of fantastic acting and spectacular dancing.

Joyce said...

I had several years of French in school and I still remember enough that if I read something in French I kind of know what it says. I couldn't carry on a conversation with anyone, though.

Annette said...

Gina, I'm no expert by any stretch of the imagination, but I believe that Sanskrit is the root of Hindi. And you learn how to place the tongue in the mouth to make those different sounds of t's and d's that are driving you crazy, I'm sure, on the CD.

In India, they use the entire mouth and tongue to speak, unlike those of us in Pittsburgh who only use the front, hence "The Stillers play dauntaun."

Jenna said...

I feel for you, Gina, even if I have no idea what you're going through. I'm one of the lucky ones: languages have always come extremely easy to me. That's how I can now write books in a language that isn't my own. I speak six more or less well; Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, English, German and French. It's easier when you grow up in a small country with its own language: no one outside the country understands yours, so you'd better make sure you can speak theirs.

Gina said...

I envy you, Jenna. My father spoke several languages, having grown up in a Hungarian-speaking home in a Slovak-speaking neighborhood in an English-speaking country. I remember trying to talk him into teaching me Hungarian as a little kid, but he never did. My mother didn't speak it (she was German-Irish), so the only thing I ever heard at home was English.

Ramona said...

My mother grew up speaking French in southern Louisiana. At school, children were punished (their knuckles rapped with a ruler) if they spoke French instead of English. On the first day of school, all my mother could say in English was "My name is Vivian."

Thanks to this attitude, the Cajun French language nearly died off. I never learned it because my parents were indoctrinated that it was bad and confusing to teach modern Acadian children the language of their culture.

Whenever I hear of some proposal to make English the official language of the US, I get very fired up. It may be the primary language spoken now, but I'll fight against erasing a native language from its speakers.

Gina said...

I agree, Ramona, but I also think it's important that children learn the dominant language of their country - too hard to fully participate without that. There just has to be a way to let them use both languages.

C.L. Phillips said...

Wow - and I thought I was stretching myself with the old Rosetta stone lessons in Espanol. :)

Guess I'll stick to Texan, a subdialect of Southern.

Gina, my hat's off to you. I hope you're taking these lessons for the Bollywood movies. Now there's something I could appreciate. Love the musical numbers. :)

Great post, it made me smile.


Gina said...

C.L., I've become a Bollywood addict, to the point that I'm actually teaching a three-day class this summer on Shah Rukh Khan films! Yikes.