Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Learning Hindi Online: Memrise, Mango and the Hindi Course of My Dreams

For my fortieth birthday, I decided to go to India. And since I hate being ignorant of the language anywhere that I'm traveling, I decided I would also try to learn at least a basic amount of Hindi.

Why not? For a trip to Turkey I learned some basic Turkish, primarily using Memrise. Eventually I even made a Memrise course in basic Turkish, being dissatisfied with the scattershot approach to vocabulary I found in other courses and desiring something more systematic.

Right away, however, I discovered that Hindi is a considerably harder nut to crack than Turkish. The primary barrier: Devanagari script, in which Hindi is written.

You see, once upon a time, Turkish used a variant of the Arabic script; however, with the creation of the modern state of Turkey, that script was abandoned in favor of a 29-character phonetic Roman script. This makes Turkish very easy for European language readers to learn, as you need only understand a few phonetic rules to be able to read it. This is also ideal for Memrise: since anyone can read Turkish with a few minutes' introduction to the phonetics, you can immediately begin learning vocabulary and grammar, however unfamiliar the words themselves may be.

With Hindi, however, nearly all language-learning resources are in Devanagari, a script common to many languages in South Asia.

Devanagari itself is not overly difficult to learn. The characters are fairly simple, although with forty-seven basic characters and still more variations thereof (the characters often change in combination with each other) it is more challenging than the Roman alphabet.

The real difficulty is that the script presents a significant barrier to rapid memorization. Even once you learn the script, it takes months to really be able to to read it with ease. Until then, you are left trying to puzzle out individual characters, conjunct consonants and vowel-altering mātrā marks.

This makes Memrise far less practical. When you have to spend thirty seconds or a minute sounding out every word you see on screen, it slows things down painfully - and of course, without audio you still have only a vague notion of how the word is actually pronounced. It effectively nullifies the one area in which Memrise shines above other applications: the rapid memorization of vocabulary. Several Memrise courses I tried didn't even work, since they required you to type some responses in English and others in Devanagari, necessitating an impossibly rapid transition between keyboards (and familiarity with how to type in Devanagari).

If that doesn't make things difficult enough, there are also several systems of transliteration from Devanagari to Roman script. This means there are enormous discrepancies even between courses trying to teach you the basics of the script, much less complex words and phrases. Consider even a very simple word, like आप, meaning "you": according to my Hindi textbook, it should be rendered "āp," while Google Translate spells it "aap," and elsewhere it might be "ahp" or even "op."

So far as I can tell, my textbook uses the International Alphabet of Sanskrit Transliteration, while Google uses the Velthuis system. This is largely supposition, however, because without digging too deeply, I can't even find much information on why Google chose this system over the preferred academic standard of IAST.

All of which begs the question: Why not just give in and learn Devanagari properly, then?

The answer, simply, is because it's slow. By requiring learners to assimilate the script at the same time as the vocabulary, you're essentially placing a double burden on them. Since they don't know the vocab, they're unable to quickly recognize words. Being unable to quickly recognize words, they're unable to learn the vocab.

And I would argue that the vocabulary is far more valuable. If I know the vocabulary, after all, and just the basics of the script, I can puzzle out what a sign or menu is saying fairly easily. On the other hand, if I know the script but not the vocab, it's nearly useless: I may be able to discern how a word sounds, but that sound holds no meaning for me.

It's worth remembering that children, after all, do not learn to read at the same time as they learn to speak. They speak first, and only later match the characters of a script with the words and sounds they know.

And meanwhile, if I know the vocabulary, I can actually communicate. I can ask, Where is the bus station? and Do you have any toothpaste? and I would like one beer, please. 

This is all a roundabout way of saying that it would be great if someone would build a good Memrise course for Hindi using IAST transliteration to accompany the Devanagari. I would work on it myself, except for three problems: first, I'm leaving for India in about three weeks, and I think it would take longer than that; second, just typing in Devanagari is a serious pain; and third, without accompanying audio of often-tricky Hindi pronunciations, I fear it would be of limited use (an unfortunate limitation of many Memrise courses).

In the end, I discovered that the Denver Public Library actually offers free access to Mango Languages, which is generally very good. I might wish, again, for a more systematic approach to vocabulary, but Mango does include full audio of every word and phrase, which is obviously hugely advantageous. I might also wish for better aids for memorization, a la Memrise: suggestions for mnemonic devices, an algorithm to target words and phrases you're struggling with, and a simple "I've got this" button to indicate that you have fully assimilated the phrase and don't wish to be quizzed on it again.

Oh, and one other thing: a consistent system of transliteration. Can't we all agree whether "thank you" is "dhanyavād," "dhanyavaad," or (God forbid) "dhunyuvahd"? धन्यवाद !

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