Before learning Swedish, I spent several months self-studying Hindi. Because it is a ‘Big Five’ world language, a lingua franca in India and comes from Sanskrit, an ancient language that contributed to Greek and Latin, I was intrigued. Not to mention that India is an emerging superpower, gave us the number zero, and exports fantastic cuisine and yoga. Plus Hindi is the tongue of Bollywood!
In this article, I’ll first give an overview of the Hindi language and then list 31 beginner lessons for learning Hindi.
Why Learn to Speak Hindi? It’s One of the “Big Five” Languages
Hindi is one of the world’s “Big Five” languages alongside English, Spanish, Chinese and Arabic. More than half a billion people speak it, and about half of those are native speakers, mostly in northern India.
Hindi became the lingua franca of India when the British were expelled in 1947. English remained a national language, but the expectation was that it would be dropped from the constitution after 15 years of independence. Today, both are among the 23 official languages of India. This is only the tip of the iceberg. More than 1,600 spoken languages are used in this culturally diverse country.
Here are some itroductory words in Hindi. The word for India is Bhaarat and the word for Indian is bhartiya. One often sees the phrase desi meaning “Indian”, as in, “the way Indians do things.” This phrase comes from the other word desh, or “country” and deshi, meaning “someone from a country.”
Hindi’s Ancient Heritage: Sanskrit
Hindi descends from Sanskrit, an ancient language as important as Greek and Latin in terms of historical and cultural impact. Many of the modern languages of India come from Sanskrit and it is still used as one of the official languages of India. Sanskrit is also the holy language of the Vedas, the oldest known literary works and the core of Hinduism.
You’ll learn a lot of Sanskrit words when learning Hindi. For example, the first Sanskrit cognate you’ll likely come across in Hindi is the word for “name” – naam. “My name is” in Hindi is Mera naam hai. Our words for “mother”, “father” and “trigonometry” come through Latin and Greek but also originated in Sanskrit.
Hindi Writing and the Hindi Alphabet — The Beautiful Script of Devanagari
Hindi can be written in the Latin alphabet, which is great for learners, but you should invest the time to learn Devanagari script.
Admittedly, it takes a while to learn Devanagari. It’s more complex than the Latin alphabet, but that’s exactly why it’s intriguing. The name comes from “deva” or “deity” and “nagari” or “city”. This implies Devanagari is a script for ideas that are both “religious as well as urbane or sophisticated.” If you know Devanagari you’ll also be to read Sanskrit (though modern Devanagari has been simplified) and Hindi. You’ll also be able to sound out languages like Nepali, a similar language.
Devanagari is a syllabary. Like Japanese, all the consonants have a vowel attached and it’s always an “a” unless otherwise indicated. There are 13 vowels and 36 consonants five of which are modified by a dot underneath to make sounds used in the many Arabic and Persian loanwords in Hindi.
The challenge of learning Devanagari is that consonants and vowels merge to form combined shapes in the script. This means learning some 1,000 combinations if you want to master reading and writing. This “condensing” is intended to make the script aesthetically pleasing and acts to compact the lengths of many words, so for example, newspapers are shorter.
Here is an example that uses a word for love. Its transliteration is pyar. These four sounds of p, y, a, and r are represented by प य अ र, when written on their own. But together, they become प्यार, which is shortened because the p and y merge and the “a” is implied.
The connecting line above each word is what gives Devanagari its signature look.
Hindi Pronunciation — Much Easier than English
Hindi is a phonetic language. It sounds like it is a written, which is a big plus in learning any language. The downside for learners is that there are sounds in Hindi that English speakers won’t recognize. They are made by adding an h to sounds we do recognize. So, there is a da sound and a dha, a ka sound and a kha, etc.
In addition to it being difficult to hear these nuanced differences — or to say them properly – Devanagari is romanized with seemingly random variations. Dal, a famous dish made of lentils, is seen in English spelled as dal, daal or dahl. In Hindi, it’s दाल, which is made up of “da”, “aa” and “la”, or द आ ल. Use Devanagari and you’ll be certain you have exactly the right word and spelling.
Two Languages for One: Hindi and Urdu
When you learn Hindi a huge bonus is that you also learn Urdu. While Hindi and Urdu are treated as distinct for religious and geopolitical reasons, they are the same language for conversational purposes.
Urdu is the national language and lingua franca of Pakistan where only 8% of people in Pakistan speak it natively because of the linguistic diversity of the populace.
The two languages do have differences, primarily in that Urdu draws vocabulary from the Persian and Arabic cognate pool, while Hindi draws from Sanskrit. This is apparent in greetings and the formal written language. Urdu is written in a modified version of Arabic. In Hindi, one would say “hello” as namaste and write it in Devanagari as नमस्ते, while in Urdu one would say salam and write it as سلام.
Persian and Arabic Loanwords in Hindi
As you learn Hindi, you’ll see only a few words recognizable as cognates. This is expected because of the distance between English and Hindi. But this is why Hindi is fun – it’s all new!
Some interesting cognates from other languages will pop up, like अनानास, (ananas) for pineapple, a loanword that followed the trade of this fruit across the world and is now found in many European languages.
A large number of Hindi words have their roots in Persian. During the Mongol Empire, Persian was the lingua franca in modern day India.
Hindi also contains a fair bit of Arabic because of the influence of Islam in India. Some of the most beautiful words in Bollywood are pulled from Urdu. They are Persian and Arabic in origin.
Because of its borrowings from many different languages, Hindi is rich in synonyms. These can hold you up as you learn the language, and it also gives Hindi amazing flavor. Love alone has four common variations. If you watch Bollywood movies, you’ll hear pyar but also मोहब्बत (mohabbat), प्रेम (prem) and इश्क़ (ishq).
Hindi Words You Already Know
Even though there aren’t that many shared words between Hindi and English, you probably already know a lot of Hindi words, especially if you enjoy Indian food. Indian food is among the most diverse and flavourful on Earth. Indian cuisine is so popular that you’ll likely already know words like curry, kebab, tandoori, masala, biryani — all styles of cooking. Roti, naan, parathi and chapati are breads. Starters include poppadoms and samosas. Other words you might see on a menu include: daal (usually lentils), mirchi (chilis), machli (fish), maas (meat), and khargosh (rabbit).
Other Hindi words you’re likely to know include yoga, and if you attend yoga classes, you’ll probably know namaste. It’s the first word you should learn in Hindi as it’s ‘hello.’ You might also know shanti (peace), chakra (circle), shakti (power), kismet (fate), mantra (mantra), jungle (a forest), sitar (the instrument), sandals (the shoes), and guru (the master).
Less obvious loanwords include things like “cushy”, which comes from the word kush or kushee meaning “joy” or “pleased” in Hindi. English speakers might recognize mubarak as a last name but in conversation it means “congratulations!”
Hinglish: A Risk or a Help for Hindi Learners?
The English used in India is “Indian English”, with a smattering of local flavor, only some of which is British. For example, Bollywood actors in movies speak “dialogues” rather than “lines”. In language videos you might hear “if you have doubts”, or “I’ll answer all your doubts” instead of “if you have questions.” You’ll also hear “when I reached”, meaning “when I arrived”.
In the media you’ll increasingly hear Hinglish. This is Hindi with chunks of English thrown in for emphasis. This can be especially useful in deciphering Bollywood movies.
If you are lucky to have the chance to go to a cosmopolitan part of India where English is commonly spoken, you might find it difficult to find people willing to speak Hindi with you. English is now widely recognized as the global language of business, science and entertainment. At the very least, you can leverage this to ask questions about local customs, foods, and sights.
How to Learn Hindi: 31 Beginner Lessons
My Hindi experience started with Bollywood movies. Looking up a word here and there for fun blossomed into a full-blown vocabulary list and forays into grammar. I’m still at the early stages but my interest grows the more I learn.
If you want to start with Hindi, or just want a “linguistic tourist” overview of the mechanics, here’s an introduction in 31 mini lessons.
How to Learn Hindi: The Beginning
Lesson 1: Context is everything in language learning. One of the things with language learning at the beginning is that it’s simple. That’s, of course, where you need to begin if you want to speak. The meaty stuff comes later. My first exposure to Hindi was very advanced: Bollywood movies. The downside was that I could understand hardly any of it, but the upside was that it was meaningful. I wanted to understand these movies to follow the storylines. And those stories gave context to the language, so I could follow what was happening without understanding every word.
Lesson 2: Google Translate is your friend. Google Translate works pretty well but still makes some mistakes that you just have to look past. I knew I could rely on it as a tool, but that I couldn’t assume it’s always 100% correct. A great benefit is that you can also listen to words to learn pronunciation.
Lesson 3: Keep note of all the words you’ve learned or want to learn. From day one of learning Hindi, I took time to keep a digital record of the words I wanted to learn. I did this in a Google spreadsheet.
Lesson 4: Drop the “the”. There is no word for “the” or “a” in Hindi. In other words, there are no definite or indefinite articles. It is common, however, to use ek, which means “one” in front of a noun. This makes ek kitaab akin to “the book” or “a book”.
Lesson 5: Make a special effort to learn the “glue words” first. I started by learning “the little words”. These “glue words” occur so frequently, it’s best to learn them straight off the bat. Three important glue words in Hindi are aur (and), lekin (but) and ya (or). The sooner you conquer them, the better.
Lesson 6: Get ready for formalities. Hindi is a formal language and there are three levels of formality. “You” is aap, tum, and tu, from most formal to least. Tu is another Sanskrit cognate that speakers of romance languages will recognize!
Lesson 7: Get ready to show respect. The post-fix ji is a formality token added to the end of names and responses – like, yes and no. So, in a formal situation, haan (yes) and nahin (no) become haan-ji and nahin-ji, respectively.
Lesson 8: Put verbs last. Hindi is an SOV language (subject-object-verb) while English is an SVO language. This means basic word order will be different from English – get used to putting your verbs last.
Lesson 9: Gender matters. When it comes to learning nouns in Hindi, you’ll have to remember one of two forms. Hindi has male and female nouns.
Lesson 10: Adjectives. Adjectives come before the noun, like in English. Some change according to the gender of the noun they’re attached to, as well as for singular and plural. Others stay the same.
Lesson 11: Infinitive verbs. One of the first patterns you learn is that infinitive verbs end in ‘na’ – as in karna meaning “to do”.
Special Features of Hindi Grammar
While the above features of Hindi are probably familiar to you if you’ve studied European languages (e.g. gendered nouns), the below features are likely to be novel.
Lesson 12: Distance matters. Pronouns distinguish whether the subject is near or far from the speaker. They differ based on proximity. He/she/it can be “near” or “far away”, as in yeh (near) or veh (far).
Lesson 13: Double verbs are common. Lots of verbs are “double”, a combination of a noun-verb. The most frequently used verb in these combination is karna, to do. Examples include shopping karna, to shop and shaddi karna, to get married.
Lesson 14: Prepositions are reversed. Switch the order of prepositional phrases. Prepositions come after the noun because Hindi is a post-positional language. Instead of the book being “on the table” as in English, it is “table on” in Hindi – and remember, no “the” or “a”.
Lesson 15: Possessives are reversed, too. You also need to switch the order of possessive phrases. Possessive, which is done with apostrophe s in English, is done with ka after the noun. So, “my cat’s dish” is cat ka dish.
Lesson 16: Pronouns can be in the past tense. When you form the past tense, you add ne to the pronoun. “I” is main, but when you speak about the past, “I” becomes maine.
The Most Surprising Features of Hindi
Lesson 17: You can distinguish male and female speakers, even in writing! Men and women speak Hindi differently. Hindi is special for not only having gendered nouns, but also gendered verbs. This means males and females use different verb endings. In other words, you know the gender of the speaker in Hindi. The male ending is “a” and the female is “i”.
Lesson 18: Everyone is an “it”. Everyone is equal in Hindi in one respect. Given the heavy focus on gender, it is intriguing that there is no distinction between “he/she/it” in Hindi.
Hindi at its Most Beautiful
Lesson 19: Doubling up words. My favorite “Hindi-ism” is the use of double words. This feature has a vast number of uses and it often emphasizes meaning. If once means “slow” as in haule, twice means “super slow” as in haule haule. This “phrase” gets translated as ‘slowly, sweetly, softly’ in this song by that title.
Lesson 20: Double words can be requests for more detail. Repeated words can also be used to request more detail. For example, kya means “what” and kya-kya means “what kinds”. For example, if you say “tell me what (kya) you had for breakfast” you might get the answer “cereal”. But if you say “tell me everything you had (kya-kya) for breakfast” you get a full list as explained in this video on [repeat words]
Lesson 21: Hindi is rich in untranslatable words. Another perk of learning this beautiful and ancient language is that there are many untranslatable word in Hindi. They simply don’t exist in English. One of my favorites is humdard, which is literally “we-pain”, meaning someone who has gone through the wringer with you and stayed by your side.
Lesson 22: There is a database of ‘untranslatables’. There is an amazing website full of untranslatables called Shabd Meaning (shabd means :word” in Hindi). Here, each word is given a page-long explanation. For example, here is the page for humdard.
Lesson 23: Make use of subtitles for movies. Most Bollywood movies can be viewed with English subtitles. Because of the wonderful differences between Hindi and English in word order and usage, subtitles often convey meaning rather than being exact translations.
Lesson 24: Sing to learn Hindi. Most Bollywood songs have lyric translations posted on the web.Some even have lyric videos with Hindi and English translations so you can sing along.
Lesson 25: Remember lyrics are poetic Hindi. Songs are akin to poems, so if you study Hindi through lyrics that’s worth remembering. The language used will often be unusual Hindi in terms of vocabulary, word order and the use of figurative language.
Lesson 26: Imaginative translations. You must beware the translations from Hindi to English since the use of language can be so different. Watch out for whether they are even correct to begin with and whether they are literal or more figurative.
Lesson 27: The original Hindi is best. Hindi is different enough from English that often, there are many possible translations. If you look at more than one translation of Bollywood lyrics online, you may find they are hardly ever exactly the same and often even wildly different.
Lesson 28: Get a proper explanation. If you talk to a native Hindi speak about the lyrics, you’ll always find they are more beautiful and meaningful in the original Hindi – as expected. The trade-off is between a literal translation, which will be ‘correct’ but seem stilted in English while a more poetic translation that will be more beautiful but bear far less resemblance to the literal meaning of the Hindi. The original Hindi, especially if you have all the depth of meaning explained by a native speaker, is always by far the most satisfying.
Lesson 29: Study dialogues for fun. The best lines from movies are catalogued by fans all over the web. One of the first I learned was “Don ko pakadna mushkil hi nahi naamumkin hai” from the movie “Don”, meaning “It is not just difficult to catch Don but impossible.” A great ‘Hindi-ism’ here compared to English is nahi naamumkin meaning literally “not possible” meaning”‘impossible”. Here is a list of famous “dialogues” including one which has two “word pairs” in it: “Bade bade shehro mein aisi chhoti chhoti baatein hoti rehti hai” meaning, “In big cities, small things like this happen”.
Picking up Speed
Lesson 30: Switch to Hindi. As you soon as you know enough Hindi to do it, switch to Hindi. Take advantage of the wealth of English lessons online in Hindi. The instructors will be teaching English, but you’ll be learning the equivalent Hindi. Here is an example from one of my favorite YouTube teachers teaching the weather. Here’s another easy to understand and follow teacher talking about food.
The Amazing Hindi Script
Lesson 31: Learn Devanagari You’ll want to invest the time it takes to learn the script as it will help remove the ambiguity of transliterations. Google Input Tools is great at letting you switch to Devanagari in documents when you need it. Using it can give you the practice you need to pick it up faster and stick with it once you get further along instead of falling back into latin script. You’ll soon be grateful you put in the effort up front.
Are you learning Hindi? I’d love to hear about it. Tell me why you’re learning Hindi and the steps you’re taking to learn it in the comments.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to my Hindi teachers Anil Mahato, Gaurav Walia and Bakshi Yashpreet, all in India, for answering questions and for checking the facts in this article.