As anyone who has tried to acquire a new language knows, practice and immersion is key. The best way to learn a language is to place yourself in an environment where you have no choice but to use it, and then just bludgeon your way through until you get the hang of it.
I haven't been able to do this with Hindi. I do have daily exposure to the language through the movies I watch and music I listen to, and I frequently try to read texts from the internet or books that I have. But with the movies, I still rely on the subtitles - I quickly get lost if I try to listen without them, as I was reminded while watching a play in Urdu last week. And I have almost no practice actually speaking the language; it takes me a long time to put a sentence together. Also, I am a perfectionist; I hate making mistakes and butchering things that I think are beautiful.
As a result I have not had the courage to try to speak Hindi with people I encounter who might know the language. I have squandered opportunities to practice in Indian groceries and restaurants, and in other public places where I have overheard conversations in Hindi. I still kick myself for letting my shyness overcome me in these instances.
Now, though, after being too bashful to say anything to Shabana Azmi - even in English - when she was shaking my hand and looking attentively into my eyes, I've tried to resolve to just get over myself and talk to people. So last week, when I got into a cab in New York city and saw that the driver's name was Dargan Raj, I knew I had to suck it up and take a chance. I've often had good conversations with cab drivers, and I just couldn't waste another opportunity to practice Hindi. I took a deep breath, leaned forward, and said:
"आप हिंदी बोलते हैं क्या?"
"What?" he asked. So I said it again: "You speak Hindi, don't you?"
He was very surprised. "हाँ जी, हाँ जी," he said, "Yes, yes." I told him I was studying Hindi. When he asked why, I answered that I love Hindi movies. I asked him where he was from - Banares - and we talked a little about Banares and about visiting India. We spent the rest of the cab ride talking about movies and listening to filmi music.
Actually most of our conversation was in English - I don't think he really had the patience for my slow, painful Hindi while he was driving - but it was a pleasant chat, and I'm glad to have taken the chance - I have such a fear of making errors, and such a fear of being caught out for the freak that I am, and it's paralyzing to me in these situations. But my cab driver friend seemed happy with my interest, and he told me I had a good accent. I appreciated that complement especially - since syntax and vocabulary fly right out of my brain when I'm nervous, it's nice to know that something remains intact.