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I had been interested in India growing up – because I had family connections through my father’s Austrian family who had met various people from India. My father was a mathematician at Cambridge university and he had colleagues from South Asia. I thought it was quite normal to have people from different cultures - Chinese, Indian and Western. They would gather and eat each other’s food. And then I travelled on my first ever trip to India. I was about 19 at the time.
It was an incredible journey. Once I got to India, I went to Ellora, which is a marvellous place where there are a whole group of cave temples in the hillside in Maharashtra. Some of them were Buddhist temples, some of them were Hindu sites and some of them were Jain structures. I was an enthusiastic amateur artist, as I am to today, and I was sitting in the caves drawing. I had a sense that if I just asked people what I was drawing a picture of, I would be able to understand much better what I was looking at. Because it I was searching for a language visually– I wondered how to represent this kind of imagery I had never seen before? And yet at the same time, conceptually, I was trying to find out the language to describe these marvellous sculptures of different deities and gods who were dancing and singing on the walls of the cave, caught in stone for a thousand or more years. At that point, I realised it is vital for us, as different cultures, to talk with each other.
Once I learnt more about Indian languages, I was able to better understand the way visual representations functioned. For instance, one of the things about the caves was that the images weren’t in modern standard perspective. People have different ways they represent things, perhaps in proportion to importance rather than how far away they are. I had a strong sense that if you’re trying to understand another culture you need to understand its language which involves the spoken elements and the visual and the basic issues about how we communicate with each other. That’s how language, culture and art fit together.
I realised that India is an extremely multilingual place. I asked various people and from that, I decided to learn Hindi. I initially continued on my travels and asked people how to say things. Sometimes it worked very well but then sometimes, I couldn’t quite figure out why two different people gave me completely different answers to apparently the same question. I started buying Hindi phrasebooks and I thought I could sit down in the hotel or with the man who wanted to clean my ears. But instead of getting him to clean my ears, I could ask him to tell me what the phrases were. I remember clearly sitting in Delhi in a big park and I had a phrase book called ‘Latest Hindi Phrasebook’. I was looking at an expression which said, ‘Take these socks to the market and have them darned’. I got someone to read it out and they obviously thought it was an odd phrase as well. Then I looked under the Sports and Passtimes section and the first phrase was ‘I’d like to shoot a tiger’. I suddenly realised although the cover of the book was very new it wasn’t a very new book at all!
And after that, I was sitting in a teashop in Varanasi and I was explaining to someone about my troubles in learning Hindi. And he said ‘Why don’t you teach English in my evening classes coaching institute and I will teach you Hindi?’ This turned out to be a much better way of learning and it was a very Indian way since a guru is a very important figure in India. Each evening I would teach English for two hours and then, for about two hours I would learn Hindi - sitting around in a room with a teacher, the principal of the school and an old gentleman, a retired lawyer, who would come in for tea each evening. There would also be a young person in the school normally sitting with us, as well as a person who would get us tea as we chatted. In Hindi, like with many Asian languages, it’s so important that you think about your relative status: if you speak to somebody older you have to speak one way, when you speak to someone younger you speak in another way and if you speak to somebody on the same status, you speak in a third way. In Hindi also, many language forms are impacted by people’s gender. If I spoke to the principal of the school, who was a woman, I would speak to her in a different way to my teacher, who was a man. It was a perfect, small environment to learn about the different ways people communicate. This happened in 1977, so I’ve been studying for more than 40 years. And I’m still discovering things every day.
In the teaching materials that I have written with other people, we have set it up as groups of people talking with each other who are of different social status, backgrounds and ages. It gives people an opportunity to play the roles of these characters in the dialogues and to apply them to their own circumstances and imagine themselves into the dialogue.
I think learning languages should be fun. Unless you enjoy it, you won’t do it. What I love about teaching languages is to show people it can be fun and it can be a way to communicate and it can be a way to understand that the way we normally see the world is only one of many ways of seeing the world. Learning another language is a doorway into another way of seeing the world and another way of being in the world.