Language Arts

Emilya Ershtein - India


September 18, 2019

In school, they call it “language arts”, the art of language. Personally, I never thought of it that way; the idea of spelling tests and grammar rules never felt very artistic. To my sister and I, they were all the less fun, as we came to American school with no knowledge of English because my parents had only taught us Russian at home.
In school, because of my lack of mastery of this art, I didn’t add to the painting. I sat in silence while the other kids chattered about their teachers, their friends, and their crushes. My sister must have had a similar experience, because once we learned English, we cooperatively resented and boycotted the Russian language. When my parents asked a question in Russian, despite and fueled by the anger of my dad and protests of my mom, we answered in English.
This lasted a few years until I realized how big of a mistake I was making. I was losing my proficiency in Russian. I knew that I needed to start speaking Russian again, and before conversations with my parents I would, in my head, commit myself to speaking only Russian.
But “chicken”, I forgot how to say the word chicken in Russian. So I sat there thinking, and by the time I remembered that, of course it was курица, it was no longer worth it to say that I had chicken for lunch. Forgetting simple words slowed and hindered every day conversation. And so, feeling that I was destroying the conversation, “chicken”, I said. “I had chicken.”
And so, one by one, my metaphorical Russian watercolors dried out. Not depleted, I have hope, but just dried, and waiting one day to be rehydrated.
You might be checking if you’re still on the Global Citizen Year website, or if you’ve somehow made a mistake and ended up reading this badly thought out metaphor about languages. Well, you’re still on the Global Citizen Year website. The reason I tell this story is that I am about to spend 8 months trying to learn Hindi in India, a country where most people understand English as well. My plan had been to speak Hindi to my host family, my apprenticeship partners, and everyone else, and for the past few months I have thought that I’ll definitely be able to do it, because I can do anything I set my mind to, right? But then I remember the chicken, and just how tempting and promising it was to say the word in English. 
I realized, then, that language learning will be a challenge of power of will and of patience, especially in a country where I can get by using English. And honestly, I don’t know if I can do it. If I couldn’t do it with Russian, my first language, how can I do it with Hindi?
So I write this blog as a challenge to myself, as a way to be accountable to myself and to my readers. I challenge myself to speak Hindi even when I can speak English, and I set the goal to become fluent in Hindi by the end of these 7 months.
But why does it matter? When I tell people I really want to learn Hindi, often I get responses such as “do you plan to work in India later in life?” Or “do you have family who you want to speak Hindi to?” And the answer to those questions is no, I have no idea where I’ll be working and no, my family has no Hindi connection. So why am I doing it? Why does it matter?
Nine years ago, a 10 year old me was walking home from school, thinking about why we speak the way we do. She came to the conclusion that it is simply the most logical and correct thing to put the adjective before the noun and the subject before the verb, which is done in both English and Russian.
And in seventh grade, I got to take Spanish, in which I learned that in Spanish, adjectives actually come after the noun. This simple fact really startled me. It made it apparent and obvious that the way I have always known a thing doesn’t mean it is the right way, the correct way, or even the most logical way. I remember the feeling of a simplistic perspective turning into a nuanced one. Language learning, to me, was one of the most tangible and vivid memories of starting to think in a new way.
I have loved language learning ever since I learned that adjectives come after the noun in Spanish in seventh grade. I remember coming home and saying “Mom, guess what I learned in Spanish today,” every day for months, as if I was a little kid.
So I guess that’s why I want to learn Hindi so badly, if that makes any sense. Languages to me reveal new ways of thinking and looking at the world, and that’s exactly what I’m in India for.

Emilya Ershtein