Learning Hindi, Teaching English

Hindi is the second most widely spoken language in the world, after Mandarin Chinese. There are approximately 370 million native speakers, and about 120 million people who speak Hindi as a second language. Bollywood culture, which is primarily in Hindi, is rapidly permeating the western world, and students from around the globe want to learn more about Indian traditions, culture, cuisine, and more. In order to fully understand and participate in Indian culture, one has to be conversant in Hindi/Urdu.

An Internationalizing the Cornell Curriculum grant helped Sujata Singh, lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences, open the door to such possibilities for students at Cornell.

“For a long time I had been hoping that Cornell would support programs that would allow faculty to embed international learning into the curriculum,” says Singh, who teaches Hindi and Urdu on campus. “I am very grateful to the Global Cornell initiative for launching the ICC grants, to help make this dream a reality.”

The proposal for which Singh received a grant involved a six-week Hindi immersion course, which she taught in the winter of 2015. Students participated in three weeks of language instruction on the Cornell campus, followed by three weeks of community-engaged intensive Hindi immersion in Varanasi (Banaras), India. Varanasi is one of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world. The vast majority of the city is comprised of Hindi speakers who speak little or no English.

The course was designed to accommodate students at all levels and from any discipline. In India, daily language instruction and volunteer work in the local community helped build language fluency. Through their service learning—which involved close interaction with native Hindi speakers—students encountered local culture, customs, and dialects.

Prior to coming to Cornell, Sujata Singh taught in several study abroad programs in India. From this experience Singh knows firsthand the value of teaching students on-site in India.

“When I see my students living and breathing the cultural differences that I talk about in class, the experience is quite amazing, highly rewarding, and meaningful—for them and for me,” says Singh. “When in India, they have a completely different level of connection with Hindi. Talking about sitting on the bank of river, having chai, and conversing with local kids is one thing—but experiencing these things in person is quite another.”

Students in Singh’s course worked in two community-based schools in Varanasi that serve underprivileged children, Little Stars School and Vidyashram School. The two schools enroll children whose families do not have resources to attend regular schools. As non-profits, the schools rely solely on donations and are always in need of teachers and volunteers to assist with their work.

“Given that these organizations are located in the city in which I grew up, I am very familiar with their work and their missions,” says Singh. “When students from universities like Cornell volunteer to teach subjects like social sciences, math, and English—it is a great source of help for these schools, and much appreciated and valued.”

A total of 10 students enrolled in Singh’s Hindi immersion course (HINDI 2215). They came from colleges and schools across Cornell, including Arts and Sciences, Agriculture and Life Sciences; Architecture, Art, and Planning; and Engineering. Some students had taken other Hindi courses at Cornell, but the course was designed to accommodate students from all levels and most of them were beginning speakers.

Prior to going to India, students attended three weeks of Hindi instruction at Cornell. They learned basic Hindi grammar along with phrases and structures that they would most frequently use in India. In Varanasi they had evening classes in which they reviewed useful conversational structures and dialogues. The intent of the language instruction, Singh explains, was to enable students to speak and understand Hindi in the most common settings. They learned to use simple words and phrases to convey their ideas and to recognize familiar words and phrases in their working and living environment. 

In Varanasi students began each day with yoga, followed by breakfast at their program house. They spent their days working as volunteers at the two schools, and in the evenings they participated in language classes and talks about various topics presented by local experts. The students also ventured out to explore the city utilizing their Hindi skills. They were given small tasks to perform—like buying groceries—in order to practice their Hindi. On weekends they took field trips together, including Bollywood movie night, visits to local cultural sites, and boat rides.

“By and large, my students tell me that they found this course to be a transformational experience,” says Singh. “At the end of their stay in Varanasi, they were more confident and empowered when dealing with cross-cultural differences. The experiences of working with the underprivileged children, and of supporting them in small but meaningful ways, helped my students to see the world with a new perspective.”

“This class was beneficial for more than scholastic purposes—it helped my personal growth,” says Ashleigh Olivia Clark ’17, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “While in India I learned about new religions and ways of life, new recipes, ways to dress, bargain, interact, and— ultimately—converse.”

Singh believes that programs like the Hindi immersion course can help spark a lifelong interest in working in the international community and in community service. “Interactions with local people, especially through a service-learning course such as this one, foster a deeper understanding of different cultures and customs, as well as an appreciation for the challenges facing many of our international neighbors,” Singh says.

Given the success of her 2016 course, Singh plans to offer the course again next year. ”Leaders at the two schools have conveyed their profound appreciation and their hopes and wishes that Cornell can continue this service learning project in the future,” she says.

At the end of their India program, Singh’s students offered a small donation to the schools to support the purchase of new resources for the students. They are also planning to send books, pencils, and other school supplies to Varanasi at the end of spring semester.

This article was originally published on the Global Cornell website.

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 Sujata Singh with students