There’s perhaps nothing more intimidating for a basic level language learner than staring at an unknown script with the prospect of having to master it. At first it appears complex, mysterious and utterly alien. If you’re like most learners, it’s difficult to even imagine being able to put it all together, let alone read with any degree of fluency. And so, quite naturally, you might feel resistance to learning the Hindi script and feel like skipping over it altogether and using the Roman alphabet to represent the Hindi sounds, instead.
In this post I am going to cover some reasons why you definitely should learn the Hindi script and why it isn’t nearly as difficult as imagined. With some disciplined memorization work and practice, you can expect to be familiar with all the characters and their sounds within a couple of weeks (faster than that if you’re studying intensively) and you’ll experience a great deal of satisfaction at having gone from zero knowledge of this writing system to being able to decipher it.
A Brief Introduction to the Hindi Script
The Hindi language is written and represented in a script called Devanāgarī, which is the script that is also used to write Nepali, Marathi, and Sanskrit (among others). Just like English, it is written from left to right. There is just one standard way of writing (no print versus cursive style), and just one version of each character (i.e. no capital versus lower case letters).
Devanāgarī is actually called a syllabary as opposed to an alphabet, because each character represents one complete syllable.
It’s Phonetic (2 plus 2 always equals 4)
When we read English and come across a word like colonel or choir, we simply have to know how they’re pronounced. We can’t necessarily depend on the spelling. And even native speakers of English regularly come across unfamiliar words and have to take a guess at the correct pronunciation.
But, very fortunately for Hindi language students, the Devanāgarī script represents Hindi phonetically, meaning that when you come across a new word you will know the correct pronunciation, whether or not you know the meaning of the word.
For example, the character आ is pronounced ” ā ” (as in father).
The character म is pronounced ” ma ” (as in mush).
Putting the two together, we get: आ (ā) + म (ma) = आम (ām), which means mango as a noun or common, ordinary as an adjective. Note that we have dropped the “a” sound at the end of the म (ma) because the “a” consistently gets dropped at the end of a word.
When reading Hindi, आम can only represent ām and nothing else. It’s spelled exactly as it’s pronounced in spoken Hindi. Whether or not you know the meaning of आम when you read it, once you’re familiar with the script, you can read it and pronounce it correctly.
Knowledge of Devanāgarī Is Good for Pronunciation
As an English speaker, when we read a t or a d, we’ve been trained our entire lives to create a (“stop consonant”) sound produced with our tongue right around the alveolar ridge. In Hindi, there are two different kinds of t and d sounds (dental and retroflex), neither of which exactly matches the English t and d. Within the Roman transliteration system used to represent Hindi sounds, the distinction between the retroflex and dental versions is made as follows:
ट = ṭa (retroflex)
त = ta (dental)
ड = ḍa (retroflex)
द = da (dental)
So we can see that in the Roman system, retroflex sounds have a dot beneath them while the dental ones do not. And this system does work: it can accurately represent all of the sounds of the Hindi language.
But, again, when we read the Roman letters, our brains oftentimes revert back to the non-Hindi versions of the sounds (the ones we’re accustomed to). When we learn Devanāgarī, on the other hand, we practice the correct Hindi pronunciation along with each character, and our brain can naturally better associate that new sound with the new symbol.
Knowing the Script Opens up a Whole World
There are a few Hindi language learning materials (usually of somewhat dubious quality) that have been written in Roman letters and some books use Roman letters in the beginning chapters to ease students into learning the script. But the vast majority of language materials are written in Devanāgarī. So unless a teacher is willing to transliterate materials for the student into Roman (!), by not learning the script, that student is going to miss out on the best resources.
Of course if you live in north India or ever travel there, learning the script is very practical, too. Outside of the largest cities you’ll find that most road signs, schedules, menus, etc., are written in Devanāgarī.
I oftentimes try to explain to students that once you’re over that initial hurdle of memorizing the characters and putting the pieces together, you’ll quickly progress to a point where you don’t actually want to read a Hindi word written in Roman because its Devanāgarī version feels more exact and right, somehow. As a teacher of the language, I’m pretty comfortable using the Roman script to represent Hindi. But when I see a whole Hindi paragraph or even a sentence written in Roman, it always throws me off a little and actually takes more of my mental energy to read it than the Devanāgarī representation would.
So in conclusion, my advice is to just jump into it, knowing that knowledge of the script will help your pronunciation, be very satisfying for you as a learner, give you access to learning materials and enrich your world.