Teaching Hindi and Marathi

As India continues to grow as a world economic power, language industry professionals and business people who work for companies with global communications needs are becoming increasingly aware of the need to learn Hindi and Marathi.

Hindi, spoken by 490 million people, is not only the most important language in India — it’s the fourth largest language in the world. Marathi, meanwhile, is the fourth most widely spoken language in India after Hindi, Bengali and Telugu. Of importance to globally-minded business people, Marathi also happens to be the language of Maharashtra state, the richest and second most populous state in India. Mumbai, the state capital, is the financial center of India.

As a native of Maharashtra state and a former software engineer in Amravati (one of the state’s growing industrial centers), I believe it is essential for US business and professional people to learn Hindi or Marathi — or at least a few key phrases in each — in order to take full advantage of the rapidly expanding market opportunities in India. 

As a CEO in the language industry, I can also suggest some new techniques that make it quicker and easier for language educators to teach Hindi and Marathi. Chief among these techniques is the use of familiar local language references or common everyday English words to teach proper recognition, reading, writing and pronunciation of letters in the Hindi and Marathi alphabets. Mastery of letters quickly leads to readiness to build words and simple-to-complex sentences. 


India’s rising economic star

How important is India becoming in the global economy? The population of India — the world’s second most populous nation after China — now almost equals the combined populations of the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Japan. According to the latest census figures released by the Indian government, India added 181 million people over the last decade and is set to replace China as the world’s most populous country by 2030.

Since 2002, there has been a 100% to 300% increase in American citizens moving to India for work, a jump that coincides with the growth of the Indian economy and its emergence as a regional and global player. Because of the persistent US economic downturn, it is not unreasonable to predict that, in the next few years, increasing numbers of American workers will be asked by their companies to relocate to India. This could be especially true in the information technology (IT) sector, where many of the top companies in India are American. In fact, out of the top 20 IT companies operating in India, nine are based in the United States.

 Why take the time and effort to learn Hindi or Marathi? After all, English is spoken throughout India, and business can be readily conducted anywhere in India using English. But as the saying goes, you only have one chance to make a good first impression. Let’s say you want to do business with a company based in Mumbai. Everyone in India knows Hindi; if you are in Mumbai and know how to speak Hindi, you can certainly do business there. But think about the positive impact you can make on a business prospect or potential strategic partner in Mumbai if you can come into a meeting and say in Marathi, “Pleased to meet you” or “How is the Mumbai stock exchange doing today?” Ultimately, this can make a world of difference in helping you break the ice and go further in the Indian business community. From a business perspective, if two companies (A and B) are interested in working with a company in India, but only A has made the effort to learn the language and culture, I would think that company A would likely get the contract because of that extra effort.  Even if you are not traveling to India to conduct business, knowing the basics of Hindi or Marathi can be a boon when the time comes to meet Indian clients or prospects visiting the United States. Greeting them in their own tongue, wherever the meeting takes place, makes a great first impression.  Learning a new language can also promote career advancement, whether or not you are doing business with foreign clients or prospects. Just telling an employer that you’re studying Hindi or Marathi can demonstrate self-discipline and a desire to learn new things, according to career expert Jason Seiden, the author of Super Staying Power: What You Need to Become Valuable and Resilient at Work.  


Linguistic nuts and bolts

Linguistically, Hindi and Marathi are quite similar. Out of the 50 letters in each alphabet, there are only a couple of letters in Marathi that are different from Hindi. Marathi also shares many words with Hindi.

The Devanagari script employed by Hindi contains ten vowels and 40 consonants, and is characterized by bars on top of the symbols. Hindi is highly phonetic, and the pronunciation of new words can be reliably predicted from their written form. When it comes to phonology, Hindi, in comparison with English, has approximately half as many vowels and twice as many consonants. In addition, consonant clusters at the beginning or end of words are more common in English than Hindi. Compared to English, Hindi has weak but predictable word stresses. Grammatically, Hindi has tenses that are similar to those used in English, but there is a lack of correspondence in their use to express various meanings. Hindi has twice as many written consonants because in Hindi, each consonant has a unique sound. For example, there is a distinction in pronunciation between aspirated and unaspirated consonants and between dental and alveolar (or retroflex) consonants. Specifically, Hindi distinguishes between the retroflex t sound and the dental t sound. The retroflex t is pronounced with the tongue curving back and touching the roof of the mouth further back than the English t sound. The dental t is pronounced with the tongue touching the roof of the mouth further forward than for the English t sound; the tongue should touch the back of the teeth. Each of these also has an aspirated version.

There are two aspects of word order that are different in Hindi and English. First, the standard word order in Hindi is subject-object-verb, as opposed to subject-verb-object in English. Secondly, in Hindi the preposition comes after the noun or pronoun it qualifies, and thus is more correctly called a “postposition.” For example, in English we would say “in America” but in Hindi that would be “America in.” Marathi, like Hindi, is also written in the Devanagari script. Unlike Hindi but like Sanskrit, Marathi has not two but three genders: masculine, feminine and neutral. Figuring out the gender of a word can sometimes be difficult, especially for English speakers. Marathi is nearly 100% phonetic. Vowels are added to consonants, similar to other Devanagari languages. But Marathi vowels retain much of their original Sanskrit pronunciation, which makes the sounds different from their Hindi counterparts. 


Think global, teach local

Why does it make sense to use local language references and common everyday English words to teach Hindi and Marathi? When an English-speaking person looks at the Hindi or Marathi alphabet, the natural tendency is to say, “It’s going to be hard to learn this.” Looking at the first letter of the alphabet, which is the same in both languages, one is tempted to say, “What’s with the number 3 with the squiggly t next to it?” The answer is surprisingly simple: it’s an a sound, just like the sound of the first letter in America.

Jayashree Chauhan, of Ashburn, Virginia, is not a native speaker of Marathi. “Teaching Marathi to my kids is hard because I didn’t learn it in India,” she says. “My mom taught me what she knew, here in the States.” Let’s say you try to use Marathi references for the different letters of the alphabet — for example, the word ahnanas, which means pineapple, for the Marathi letter that sounds like the a in awesome in standard US English. The student may struggle to make the connection and could get confused, wondering why you are trying to teach him or her the ah sound with a word that looks like it begins with the letter P.

Manju Kulkarni, a 40-year old attorney and mother of two daughters, lives in West Los Angeles, California. She and her Indian-American husband grew up in America. “Our parents spoke to us in Marathi,” Kulkarni says, “but to teach the language here in the United States it makes more sense to use pronunciation examples that Americans can understand.”

When teaching pronunciation of any language, the bottom line is to do what comes naturally to the person trying to learn the new language. This is something I learned when I began teaching my own preschooler Marathi, and the success of this methodology has been reinforced by dozens of other people who have used the same method. When pictures representing familiar sounds and words are used to represent the sounds of letters in the new alphabet, it becomes that much easier for students to recognize the sound. For example, to symbolize the hard c sound in Marathi, wouldn’t it make sense to use an illustration of a cat? However, you do need to reinforce the new scripts themselves by writing.

In the Washington, D.C., suburb of Germantown, Maryland, Scott Harris and his Sri Lankan wife are doing volunteer work with the Hindi community, teaching Bible studies. Once pronunciation of Hindi or Marathi is mastered, students can move on to reading and writing. “You need to sit down and do it the old fashioned way,” says Harris. “You can’t replace the tried and true method of writing things out.”

From a personal marketing standpoint in the global economy, there is no better way to represent yourself and your company than by learning your prospect’s language. Ultimately, it sends the message: “We mean business because we’ve taken the time to learn some key phrases of your language to establish common ground. You can work with us.”

Learning world languages is also a must for people who want to make a difference in our increasingly multicultural society. “You can’t underestimate the power of stepping into another person’s culture by learning the language,” says Harris. “By teaching ourselves Hindi, we have been able to connect with people in that community on a personal level.”

In the final analysis, the old methods of teaching Hindi and Marathi aren’t the only ways. There are new products for teaching these languages that take a more English-friendly approach. Using local language references to teach pronunciation of the Hindi and Marathi alphabets, and providing easy-to-use practice tools for writing, can make the challenge of teaching Hindi and Marathi much less daunting.

Ultimately, using these new methods, language educators can add value to many kinds of businesses in the age of globalization.  M



Chauhan, Jayashree. Personal Interview. 30 November 2010.

Harris, Scott. Personal Interview. 25 January 2011.

Kulkarni, Manju. Personal Interview. 14 December 2010.

Seiden, J. Super Staying Power: What You Need to Become Valuable and Resilient at Work. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2010.