They mind their language, and love it too

Mind Your Language and Zabaan Sambhalke may have been iconic television serials in the 1980s and 1990s but for 80-year-old Dr Sushila Gupta, it’s all in a day’s work. As the Honorary Research Director at Hindustani Prachar Sabha, Dr Gupta teaches Hindi to students from vario us corners of the globe who have made the city their home. For over a decade, Dr Gupta along with two instructors at the institute have been teaching students the ins and outs of the national language and providing a key to understanding Indian culture. 

Illustration/ Amit Bandre

“When foreigners reside in Mumbai, they feel the need to learn Hindi. Usually, private courses are expensive and the people who run these are money-minded,” explains the former college principal, adding that educating expatriates requires different methods than teaching people who hear Hindi daily and are familiar with it. “While there are MA level courses to learn Hindi, most students prefer to get acquainted with conversational Hindi,” she observes.

Class conscious
Classes are held every Saturday and include 10-15 students per batch, who range from consulate staff to wives of diplomats, and social workers. The Hindi course helps students learn the alphabet and also teaches them to communicate in public.

Students of Dr Gupta vouch for her unorthodox teaching methods. It includes getting her students to give two-minute speeches in Hindi during seminars and making them bargain with shopkeepers in Hindi as part of their syllabus.

NUTS ABOUT INDIA: Students enjoy coconut water during one of their sessions

“Students must love the language and enjoy speaking it to do well. To learn Hindi, more than a classroom environment, it’s necessary to expose students to the world out there. That’s where their language skills ultimately get put to the test,” observes Dr Gupta.

PRIZE PERFECT: The convocation ceremony which included distribution of certificates 

To draw the attention of the students the lectures include discussions on topics such as cinema and music. “Students have to feel a connection to the topic to be able to speak up; interesting topics and a healthy dose of humour help draw them into discussions. Besides, I give them a lot of homework so that they don’t forget their lessons. Despite this, my students often say they can’t wait for class on Saturdays,” reveals Dr Gupta, with a laugh.

High on Hindi
After having taught students from all over the world, Dr Gupta admits that there is no age or gender barrier to learning Hindi. “I have had students as young as 10 and as old as 70; both of them managed to learn just fine.” To reiterate her point, Dr Gupta took upon the challenge of learning Russian in a year and trained in Moscow. She came out with flying colours. “It might be easier to learn a new language when you are young but if you practice and are determined nothing will stop you even when you are older.”

However, there are challenges at times due to diverse nationalities of students — “The Japanese, for example, have trouble with pronouncing ‘Ra’ and ‘La’ while the Danish stumble with pronouncing ‘Ka’ and ‘Aa’. Russians and Spanish students learn soon but British and American students have problems due to their accent. We take it with a pinch of salt. No one is allowed to laugh at others as they are all in the same boat.”

All in a day’s work
Besides being taught Hindi, these classes also offer students a crash course on Indian culture and history. “All Indian festivals are celebrated in the class; students make Rangolisand wear Indian attire.”

Being expatriates, these students often end up leaving the course mid-way due to visa hassles, transfer postings or even natural calamities. “We had a Japanese student who lost his friend during the Tsunami. Still, he insisted on giving his exams. Though he didn’t get through in the first attempt, he reappeared for it and passed. It reflects the resilience of their culture,” she observes. Sometimes, they get unexpected additions such as when the parents drop into class with young ones in tow.

Dr Gupta admits that despite the challenges, it feels worth it when at the end of the day the Japanese students bow down to thank the instructors and the instructors see their students speak the language with aplomb. In fact, it was at the students’ insistence that they started a fourth year Hindi course from this year onwards. “Languages are not made by joining letters and words. It acts as cultural markers that define a nation,” she concludes.

Case studies
IAH Sorensen (49) from Denmark visited India as a volunteer, married an Indian and settled down in Mumbai. She has been a student at the Sabha for three years, has attended Saral Hindi classes and enrolled for the fourth year course this year. “I love this institute and the fact that they teach foreigners the nuances of Hindi and the culture. It’s not easy as we have no roots in Hindi and they have to teach us from scratch. We are assessed on practical exercises such as communicating in the marketplace, shops and restaurants which forces us to speak correctly. Dr Gupta is sweet but very strict and shows no mercy; for her all students are the same. We love her for it and have begged her to continue teaching us, which is why the course has been extended,” she says. Norwegian Joe Ekker (37) is also a fourth year student at the institute and has completed the Saral Hindi course as well. Unlike other students, Joe came to India to specifically learn Hindi. “I searched for years for the right course. Most had academic courses, which were unsuitable as I was new to Hindi,” he says. Ekker lived near Indian and Pakistani communities in Oslo and that’s where he first heard Hindi. “This course taught me how to deal with the practicalities of the language. Now, I have started correcting people’s Hindi grammar,” he laughs. 

Did you know?
>> Recognised by the Central government, the Hindustani Prachar Sabha was founded by Mahatma Gandhi in 1942 to promote Hindustani (an amalgamation of Hindi and Urdu using Devnagari and Urdu scripts).
>>  The Hindustani Prachar Sabha offers three-year courses in Hindi for foreigners and conducts Saral Hindi classes for students to grasp conversational Hindi. From this year, they have introduced a fourth year of education.
>>  Annual Hindi classes are free and held on Saturdays. They charge R500 as a refundable deposit. They also have four-hour crash courses in Hindi (R300 per session).
>>  The Sabha has a library that includes 45,000 books in Hindi and Urdu, making it one of Asia’s largest research libraries.  

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