The Best Language-learning Experience Ever

Prabha Gupta, my first Hindi teacher (I discovered this photo in my slide archives over a year after I published this blog post)

Part of the good fortune I’ve had in a career that afforded me the opportunity to live and work in several other countries has been the chance to learn other languages and use them while living and working abroad. I took two years of Latin and three of Spanish in high school. Then, when I went to college, I began studying Russian, which I later used when I worked at the U.S. consulate-general in Leningrad. After finishing graduate school I joined the Peace Corps, where I learned Hindi, which I used while living and working two years with farmers in Rajnagar, a village in north-central India. And finally, after joining the U.S. Foreign Service (America’s diplomatic service), I learned Portuguese – a close cousin of Spanish – in preparation for an assignment to Brazil, where I then worked for three years.

Of all the language-learning experiences I’ve had, learning Hindi at a Peace Corps training center in Hemet, California (about 90 miles east of Los Angeles), was by far the best and most effective.

Before describing it, however, let me briefly discuss, for purposes of contrast, a more common approach, which was my introduction to Russian at Yale. Of course, all foreign language study boils down, at some point, to memorizing words and grammatical patterns. The Yale method* relied heavily on the memorization of “dialogues.” Each lesson in our Introductory Russian book required that we memorize a contrived conversation (i.e., a dialogue) between two people – for example: “Hello!” “Hello. How are you?” “Fine, thank you. And how are you?” “I’m fine.” “I’m pleased to meet you. What’s your name?” And so on.**

This method was boring in the extreme, and – for me, at least – did little to create an understanding of the peculiarities of grammar and usage in the language being studied.

What a refreshing contrast my encounter with the study of Hindi was. We were given no books or written materials of any kind. No vocabulary lists. No “dialogues” to memorize. No explanations of grammar for at least a week after we began – it might even have been two weeks!

The entire experience was just a matter of listening and speaking. I remember it as clearly as the day I first entered the “classroom,” which was actually a tent. There were about five people in the group I was assigned to. Our teacher was a young woman from India, Prabha Gupta, who was on summer break from her graduate studies. We students sat on folding chairs in a semi-circle facing her. Because we’d arrived in Hemet only a day or two earlier, we were all wearing name tags.

Prabha smiled at us and slowly said, “Meyra nam Prabha heh.” At the word “meyra,” she pointed to herself. At the word nam, she pointed to her name tag. She repeated this several times.

Then she turned to each of the students, in turn, and said, “Apka nam Howard heh.” (Obviously this is what she said as she addressed me.) At the word apka, she pointed to the person she was addressing. She repeated this sentence too.

Then she took it a step further. With a question mark in her voice and pointing again to herself, she said, “Meyra nam kya heh?” She put this question to one student at a time. At some point, one of us figured out the answer: “Apka nam Prabha heh.” She went around the group, asking the same question till everyone responded correctly.

Then she upped the ante. She turned to each of us, in turn, and asked, “Apka nam kya heh?” And again, each of us figured out the response, in my case: “Meyra nam Howard heh.”

This, without using a word of English, spoken or written, is how we learned that meyra means “my,” nam means “name,” heh means “is,” apka means “your” and kya means “what.”

These sentences also taught us, much to everyone’s surprise, that in Hindi, the verb comes at the end of a sentence.

A few lessons later, we would similarly learn – simply by listening and speaking – that in Hindi, prepositions come not before, but after the object. (For example, if English word order were like this, we’d say “prepositions the object after come,” rather than “prepositions come after the object.”) They’re not prepositions, but postpositions. Gradually we all got used to speaking – without stopping to think or translate – in this unaccustomed way.

That’s how we learned a totally unfamiliar language. Step by step. Painless. And fun!

After a week or two of learning in this natural way, we finally had a grammar lesson. It was a short class taught by an American linguist, who was himself studying Hindi for the first time and who freely admitted that he was only a week or two ahead of the rest of us! He’d create a conceptual framework for what we’d learned so far, using familiar grammatical labels. I had no trouble following him, and in many cases, thanks to what I’d learned from my experience with Russian and Spanish, I found myself able to predict how a Hindi sentence would be structured in a verb tense we were just being introduced to.


Not long ago, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer sent me a few photos from the training camp in Hemet. And there, unmistakably, even though her back was to the camera (above), was Prabha, my first Hindi teacher. Today, my Hindi – which was already good enough to help me get around when I arrived in India eight weeks after showing up in Hemet and was quite fluent by the time I left the country two years later – is so rusty it’s crumbling. But I’ll never forget my first teacher.

Namaste, Prabha!

* The Yale method, as I recall, was actually developed at Cornell University during World War II, where it was employed to prepare U.S. Army intelligence personnel who might interact with Red Army soldiers, since the USSR was America’s ally in the fight against Nazi Germany. While learning Russian as a Yale undergraduate I actually had the opportunity to meet an older guy – Milton Edelman, who worked for my dad at Danelectro – who had studied Russian at Cornell while in the Army during World War II. Milt told me that at the end of the war in late summer 1945 he was in a unit sent to oversee the surrender of Japanese forces in Korea. The United States and the USSR had just agreed that the U.S. would take the Japanese surrender in the southern half of the Korean Peninsula, up to the 38th parallel, while the Soviets would do the same in the northern half. Milt told me that he and a couple of other soldiers were in a jeep heading north toward the 38th parallel – and well ahead of most American forces – when they drove over a rise and met a column of Soviet trucks moving south several miles within the agreed-upon American zone. Milt parleyed in Russian with the Soviet commander, telling him that the Russian troops were in the American zone and heading the wrong way. The Russian looked disdainfully at the lone jeep with three or four guys in it and asked where the rest of the American forces were. Milt bluffed and said there was an entire column just over the hill behind him, getting some well-deserved rest. And, he told me, the Russians then turned around headed back north. Whew!

** While a college sophomore, I accompanied my parents on a 1964 visit to Israel that coincided with spring break. By this time, I’d been studying Russian for less than two years, so I knew something, but not an awful lot. While in Israel, my parents and I went for a brief visit with some distant relatives who had managed not long before to emigrate from the Soviet Union. My parents spoke with the couple in Yiddish and I, not knowing the language, tried to make a bit of conversation in my still very limited Russian. Our hosts served something to eat and, wishing to be polite, I attempted to say it was very tasty. How did I know how to say this? By trying to recall a portion of one of those damn “dialogues” from my first-year Russian book. However, I had apparently not paid very close attention to that particular dialogue, so I “remembered” the words incorrectly. Today, I know the phrase “tasty dish” from the dialogue is vkusnoye blyudo. At the time, however, I got the sounds backward – blyudnoye vkuso or something like that – which must have sounded to our relatives like “dishy taste.” Even when I kept repeating it! No wonder they looked at me in confusion. I never did manage to make myself understood. That, if for no other reason, is why I’m not a big fan of trying to memorize contrived dialogues as a way to learn a new language.


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