By Michael Creighton
As an American living in Delhi, for more than a decade I was content to speak and read Hindi poorly. Then one day last June, during a Hindi-reading-fluency programme in the Community Library Project, I volunteered to do a Hindi read-aloud when another volunteer called in sick. I chose a lovely book — Katha’s Hindi translation of A Lion in Paris (2006), but even after an hour of practice, my reading was embarrassingly awkward. That day, I decided it was time for me to start “practising what I teach.” Since then, I’ve been happy to see my Hindi improve, but I’ve also gained insight into how we are failing millions of Delhi students — and ourselves.
I began learning Hindi before coming to India. I’d married an Indian and we felt our children should know at least one Indian language. To support that, I took evening classes in Portland Oregon, and, on our first visit to India, our family spent six weeks in an intensive language programme in Uttarakhand. By the time we moved to Delhi in 2005, I could read children’s books slowly, and I could make very basic conversation with difficulty.
After two years in Delhi, I still read children’s novels slowly, but now if I met someone who wanted to talk, I could manage a conversation about work, family, even politics. I could understand some Bollywood films; I was lost when it came to academic Hindi or slang. And, to a large extent, that’s where things stayed until last summer.
If Delhi had been a city where literary or political discussions happened exclusively in Hindi, this situation would have been untenable; I would have felt compelled to acquire academic Hindi. But, in many parts of Delhi, English is the language of “higher thought”.
I have nothing against English, obviously. But these pockets of English in Delhi exclude most of the city from important conversations. This isn’t a question of politics, but of demographics: the vast majority of the city is most comfortable reading, thinking and talking in Hindi. Yes, there are many people in Delhi for whom English has become a first language and who speak and write better English than most people in the US or England; and there are others who are more comfortable in English than they are in Hindi. Yet, there are many more who may reluctantly use English in their work life, but who live, love and dream in Hindi. And there are many more still for whom English is a struggle or a puzzle.
My work in the community library movement has convinced me that if Delhi is to become a city of readers, most of that reading will happen in Hindi. And if I wanted to be a part of that conversation, I had a lot to learn.
Because I read educational research, I knew this would be difficult, but probably not impossible. While the brain does become less “plastic” as we age, the biggest barrier to adult language learners seems to be time: unlike children who are often surrounded by a new language all day in school, adults tend to have limited time for language learning.
Too busy to take classes, I focussed on things I could do in my free time: listening to podcasts, reading books and newspapers, and talking to friends and auto drivers. No grammar lessons, no textbooks, no vocabulary lists; just reading, listening and talking, with a little help from Google Translate. I slowly and painfully read many news articles and children’s books. More recently, I’ve graduated to detective novels.
I am better in conversations, and my reading fluency has improved: in June, I could read an unseen Class III text at just under 30 words a minute. Now I can read adult detective novels at 80-90 words a minute. This is still half the speed of a good reader, but it’s fast enough to make popular fiction enjoyable, which, in turn, makes me want to read more.
This process has reminded me just how complex reading is. All teachers are taught this in university, but it’s easy to forget, because for fluent readers, reading happens automatically. Basic phonics skills are important, and most Delhi students have these. But good readers don’t read quickly and smoothly by “sounding out words”. Rather, we read fluently because we have practised reading so much that high-frequency words jump off the page at us, and we easily decode less-common words in part because we know what makes sense and what sounds right in the context of what we are reading. Learning to read as an adult has been thrilling — like I imagine it might feel to learn to ride a bicycle again, slowly and unsteadily at first, then faster and faster.
But riding a bicycle is simpler: though much practice is required to do it well, most riders can gain competence in weeks or months, whereas learning to read well takes much longer. To become a truly fluent reader of literary fiction and poetry, I’ll need to keep reading for years to come, just as any child must read for years before they are able to enjoy and understand adult literature.
Here, we are failing Delhi students. Our schools, regardless of instructional language, simply do not give students enough time to read; and without that time and access to quality books, few students become truly fluent readers. Even well-intentioned programmes that do many things right — like Teach for India or the Delhi government’s “Mission Buniyaad” — rely on textbooks, where each short reading is followed by pages of grammar, comprehension and vocabulary questions. It is the rare student who becomes a good reader by spending more time with worksheets than books; most people become good readers by reading and thinking, day after day, for years. Good teachers can accelerate and extend this process. But without time to read and access to books, lakhs of Delhi students will learn to read, but only slowly and painfully.
Reading — or the lack of it — also has a profound effect on our overall language development. Reading is where we encounter the most challenging, interesting words. In fact, one study in the US found that the typical children’s book is more linguistically complex than every kind of adult speech, save expert court testimony.
By denying students access to books and time to read them, we are essentially barring them from full participation in their own language and the thinking made possible by that language. All people think and are capable of important insights, regardless of their level of education. But people who are not given access to complex language through reading will be less able to participate in conversations about complex ideas. In a democratic country facing so many complex environmental, economic and social challenges, a well-educated citizenry is more than a nice idea; our long-term survival may depend on it.
Michael Creighton is a poet, teacher and library movement activist in Delhi. This article appeared in print with the headline: Thinking in Hindi
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