Beginning Hindi with a Beginner’s Mind

by Claire Chambers

Soon after the pandemic commenced its ‘global humbling’ in March 2020, I took on a humbling of my own in the form of learning Hindi. Trying to speak a new language makes most adults feel vulnerable. There is little to hold onto, so the unfamiliar language feels slippery, even treacherous. Compared to one’s easy intimacy with the mother tongue, second language acquisition entails surrendering to a shaky command of the foreign language for years, if not forever. They say languages learnt after a certain age will always be spoken with an accent. But oh well, embrace the accent! Experts put themselves in the uncomfortable position of becoming beginners again.

Most adults learn languages for one of two reasons: to make a living, or ‘to slip into another community’. However, my own motivations doubled back on each other, embracing both of these rationales.

When it comes to making a living, I have been teaching and researching South Asian literature in English for twenty years. In doing so, I’ve lived in India and Pakistan for a total of sixteen months, and picked up some words from Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and Pashto along the way. But I had no confidence and, to be frank, no grammar. So, when activities ground to a halt in the first lockdown, it seemed like a good time to embark on a linguistic journey. Physical travel to the subcontinent had become impossible. With even my fifty-mile daily commute knocked out I was faced, like everyone, with a yawning expanse of time to fill. Many people turned to language learning at this time. And I had the vague idea that learning a South Asian language would help my research. At the very least, it would be something to do. Read more »

It’s Hailing Calligraphy

by Leanne Ogasawara

Michael Cherney: Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie


It was Tetsuya’s idea to start calligraphy lessons.

I had wanted to study Aikido. But according to Tetsuya, I was already dangerous enough. “And, anyway,” he said, “You know what Confucius said: the pen is mightier than the sword.”

“Confucius definitely did not say that.” I rolled my eyes.

His idea, however, grew on me. So, a few weeks later, the two of us found ourselves standing in front of a tidy, two-story home in suburban Hachioji. Located at the end of the Keio line, Hachioji is as far west as you can travel in Tokyo without arriving in Kanagawa Prefecture.

A few days before our first class, Tetsuya had a long consultation by phone with the teacher, Yufu-sensei, and it had been decided that I should be placed in the class with grammar school students, since at that point I only knew the kanji through 5th grade. When I tried to resist being in a class of kids, Tetsuya told me to get rid of my pride immediately or this won’t end well for you.

Anyway, he said, he would sit in the class with me to make sure I was okay. With that promise, I felt confident. Tetsuya had beautiful handwriting. He was already proficient at writing with brush and ink, though he told me that all he could manage was kaisho, the “square style” or “standard style.” Kaisho is the first style that shodō practitioners usually learn and master, he said.

The lessons were held on the second floor of the teacher’s home. A hush fell over the room as we entered. Not only were adults joining the kids’ class but one of those adults was not Japanese. Definitely not Japanese.

The children just stared in disbelief. Read more »