With over 6.5 lakh speakers of Hindi in the U.S., Raksha Kumar explores the widespread appeal of the language.

One clear-skied, breezy morning in 2010, I sat reading Saadat Hasan Manto in Brad’s Cafe outside the Graduate School of Journalism, Columbia University, New York, where I was a student. Seeing this, my Indian-American professor, a smile on his face, approached me and asked if I would like to teach Hindustani (Hindi-Urdu) to a few kids, including his. “I want them to learn the language, the culture,” he explained.

Jumping at the opportunity to teach Hindustani, a language close to my heart, I began visiting their home every Sunday for a whole year. I tried to get the 7-8 year olds to engage with a language on lazy afternoons when they would have rather napped or played computer games.

I was unaware that my small attempt to teach a few children of South Asian origin a language of their parents’ motherland was part of a larger trend in the country that is arguably seeing its peak now.

A U.S. government report titled, “Language Use in the United States: 2011” that was released this month, claims that nearly 6.5 lakh people in the U.S. speak Hindi, while over eight lakh speak various regional Indian languages.

While most of the people who speak the language might be of South Asian origin, the fact that there has been an upward trend in the number of Americans learning or wanting to learn Hindi cannot be denied. “This is thanks to the increasing importance of India globally,” says Richard Delacy, Hindi Preceptor, Harvard University. Popular schools, including Illinois-based Northwestern University and The Ohio State University, recently opened applications for Hindi professors.

India has proven to be a great investment destination for the U.S. in the past few years.

“Many of our students need the language for their professional training. They might go on to work for various companies in the private sector and will benefit from having had the exposure to India and Hindi,” says Delacy. “Many students have said as much to me.”

In January 2006, U.S. President George Bush launched the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI), a plan to dramatically increase the number of Americans learning ‘critical’ languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Russian and Hindi, through new and expanded programmes from kindergarten through university and into the workforce. This has also led to a dramatic increase in the teaching of Hindi in the U.S. The most significant development was launch of the National Flagship Language Program in Hindi and Urdu at the University of Texas, Austin.

Several U.S. foreign services aspirants lined up to learn the language because doing so gained them bonus points in the U.S. Foreign Service exam.  Also, the knowledge of languages such as Hindi, Urdu and Dari gave aspirants to The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Investigative Agency a boost.

“Whether they actually use their language skills in their job is not important. Employers here like to hire people who have had more diverse experiences and made an effort to understand those who live in different parts of the world,” adds Delacy.

“When we moved to the U.S. in the 1980s, even Indian-Americans were not very interested in Hindi-Urdu. They wanted to learn English well,” says Raghuvir Singh, a resident of Houston, Texas.

“Today things seem to have changed. My son and daughter never showed much interest in the language back then but my granddaughter surely does,” he adds. His granddaughter has taken Hindi as an elective in college.

After having lived in the U.S. for a few generations, the need to connect to their South Asian roots is the biggest pull, observers say.

“The growth of the Indian American community itself also probably increases the number of American Hindi students because, at least in my experience, many of them are in fact Americans of Indian ancestry who either no longer learned Hindi at home or come from one of India’s many other linguistic communities and study the language in part as a way to reconnect with India and/or their heritage and family history,” says Nicolas Roth, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in South Asian Studies and has studied Hindi and Urdu for six years.

Devendra Singh, a resident of New Jersey, started teaching Hindi to his two children 12 years ago. “What started as private tuitions to my kids has today grown into an organisation that teaches 4000 students,” he says. HindiUSA, which Singh started, is a non-profit and entirely volunteer-managed organisation that has a structured syllabus in nine levels and about 350 teachers.

One of the reasons for the increase in interest in Hindi-Urdu in the United States is cross marriages, Singh says. “More and more people of South Asian origin have been marrying Americans,” he adds.

Robert MacMillan, who supervises web production of reuters.com in Delhi and Bangalore, is married to an Indian journalist. “I decided to study Hindi when my then girlfriend decided to look for professional opportunities in India,” he says. Being a journalist, he wanted to be able to do street reporting in India, rather than spend time in an office. “In order to do such work, the knowledge of the language was necessary,” he adds.

His foresight proved right when MacMillian arrived in Bombay recently. He hailed a taxi and asked to be taken to his destination. However, it turned out that the taxi driver wasn’t conversant with Hindi or English and neither did he know the destination. Macmillan reached the place by asking for directions from people on the street and showing the way through gestures. “It’s just easier to know the language,” he says.

Roth shares MacMillan’s views. “When travelling in northern India at least, being able to communicate with people in Hindi makes for a very different experience. Everyday life becomes much easier and much more fun,” he says.

China and the U.S. share a deep economic relationship, which has grown over the years. And Mandarin was one of the other languages that was encouraged by the U.S. government. In fact, in January this year, Georgia town’s school district made Chinese language classes mandatory hoping that, by offering Mandarin, students will be better prepared to compete in a global environment.

The Chinese students in American universities outnumber the Indian students. But, there is one thing that makes Hindi learning more attractive to residents of the U.S. — exposure through popular culture or Bollywood.

One the first day before I began teaching Hindi to my young Hindi students, I asked them why they wanted to learn Hindi. One young girl said that she wanted to learn Hindi so she could understand what Shah Rukh had to say in the movies without having to read the subtitles. “Interesting,” I said, “so, if not for Shah Rukh, would you not want to learn the language?” After a long pause, she said, “No”.

Roth has a similar experience about his first exposure to the language. “My first real exposure to Hindi probably took place in high school. I grew up in Michigan, in a suburb of Detroit, and there is a sizable Indian community in the area. About 25 per cent of the students in my school were from Indian background, and there were also quite a number whose parents had migrated to the U.S. from Pakistan. As a result, I made a number of Hindi and Urdu-speaking friends and through them encountered Hindi films and music, which I soon came to love,” he says.

The role of TV series and films in promoting American culture in India was crucial. Similarly, if Hindi is gaining popularity in the U.S., the role of television and films cannot be overlooked. “Hindi films and music have become more well-known and popular in this country in tandem with India’s economic boom,” says Roth.

MacMillian has only one grouse, “I hope the government is making equal effort to encourage south Indian languages that are sadly ignored.” He says that it adds to better understanding of peoples and cultures if the barrier of language is broken. “And it is always fun to converse in different languages,” he adds.

I remember the time when a few Pakistani friends and I used to frequent the New York City subway, poking fun at the American commuters in Hindustani presuming they wouldn’t understand us. I guess, we’ll have to stop doing that in the future.