By Carmen Perry
New languages will echo in Lower Peirce this semester. The Hindi/Urdu table will offer a weekly opportunity to speak these languages during lunch in Peirce Hall and has already garnered a following among students and faculty.
“It’s probably a little bit different than a lot of the other tables because most of the tables revolve around classes at Kenyon, and Hindi and Urdu are not languages that are regularly taught at Kenyon,” said Visiting Assistant Professor of Anthropology, History and Women’s and Gender Studies Holly Donahue Singh, who helped found the table. “It’s not taught at many colleges or universities in the United States.”
After having trouble getting a visa to enter Kenyon in the fall of 2011, Shariq Khan ’15 of Pakistan came to Kenyon at the beginning of this semester feeling out of place. On his first day, Khan met Singh’s husband, Deepak Singh, who hails from Lucknow, India, and the two instantly connected. “Somehow we could recognize where we were from just by looking at each other,” Khan said. “So we just started speaking Urdu. That made me feel really good. I felt very much close to home, and I felt that somebody is here. I’m not alone.”
Khan formed a friendship with the Singhs and encouraged Holly Donague Singh to bring the Hindi/Urdu table – an idea she had already been contemplating – to fruition.
“We discovered that there were some people around who knew Hindi or Urdu or that had interest … and that it was not only among students, but also there were several staff members here who spoke Hindi or Urdu,” she said. “So we thought it would be a good idea to get people together. So far it’s been a lot of fun.”
Hindi/Urdu is one of the top five most widely-spoken languages in the world. While Hindi and Urdu are the same colloquially, they are different in writing. Khan compared the two scripts to English and Mandarin Chinese. According to Singh, the literary forms diverge in terms of vocabulary: Hindu draws more from Sanskrit, whereas Urdu draws from Persian and Arab vocabulary. “People who speak Hindi or Urdu can talk to one another perfectly well on most topics,” Singh said. “If they get into some high-flung politics or literature or something, they might have to explain to each other a little bit.”
Though the majority of the table’s participants grew up speaking Hindi or Urdu, not all of them cite Hindi or Urdu as their native language. “[Those present at the first meeting] were not necessarily from the Hindi/Urdu-speaking countries,” Khan said. “They were from Pakistan, India, Nepal, Bangladesh. There were even a few Americans. So it was a motley kind of group, but we had a lot of fun. Everybody was trying to speak in his own way.”
Some had even utilized creative means to learn the language. “Some people had learned Hindi or Urdu from Bollywood,” Khan said.
Those at the Hindi/Urdu table participate in a variety of activities ranging from translating, comparing Hindu and Urdu, listening to music, sharing movies and simply conversing informally. For students like Khan, speaking in a familiar language is reminiscent of home. “It’s not just language, it’s the culture that comes with it, and the humor, which is really important,” he said.
“Humor can’t be translated. It’s really well nested in the language. So we can share jokes and get the humor with these guys. For cracking jokes in English, I have to completely give up that sort of humor and do it in another way [so] that [those] guys get it.”
Though the table is now mainly just for speaking practice, Khan hopes that with enough time and effort, it could evolve into something more. “We are looking to have some concrete purpose or a goal other than just talking,” he said. “So it’s bound to grow. Right now it’s just meetings, but we’re brainstorming what else we can do to attract more people and do more things other than just talk.”
The Hindi/Urdu table is a way for members of the Kenyon community to practice speaking in a comfortable environment, whether they are already familiar with Hindi/Urdu or just learning. The group welcomes anyone with an interest in the language, regardless of his or her previous experience. “For the students who are studying Hindi [independently] it’s part of their class,” Singh said.
“We would like to help foster a little bit of a connection of people who are familiar with Hindi/Urdu, or have some kind of interest in some sort of South Asia-related literature, movies, films, activities or culture at Kenyon, and to just have a good time talking to one another and learning from one another.”
The Hindi/Urdu table meets every Monday from 11:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. in the Marriott Society Private Dining Room in lower Peirce Hall.