Some Surprises with Language in India

by Kendra Worley


Language has been an adventure here in India. I took 2 years of Spanish in Middle School but I don’t remember much at all. Then in high school and college I took Latin, an unspoken language. I have been good at languages regarding the written parts, but I have a hard time with hearing and speaking the languages. So, knowing that I would be learning a new spoken language on this program was nerve wracking, but exciting.

My friend and I had a rough time traveling to India. Thankfully our accidental 30 hour layover was in America, but we ended up with another 6 hour layover in Switzerland which was our first experience being surrounded by so many different languages. Sure just being in the international terminal in Chicago was interesting hearing many conversations in other languages. Once the announcements were not always in English, I definitely felt the effect of not understanding another language. We traveled through the airport in Zurich, Switzerland and had to ask different people if they knew English to help us find our correct terminal which took us about an hour to get there. But I guess this was good as a way to slowly get used to the language barriers we were about to experience for the next 4 months.

'Om Mani Padme Hum' is the mantra of compassion. The word shows the multi-layered nature of Tibetan a lot which encompasses sub & super scripts, vowels as well as pre and suffixes

A Tibetan mantra carved on a stone

First showing up in India was overwhelming. Jensen and I got through customs after some complications with our passports and visas, which was hard to understand what was going on since they either were speaking in Hindi or the Indian dialect of English. Finding out that English is one of the national languages of India made me confused. Not because of the history within India and that English is a language that can unite this country with many local languges, but I was very surprised about which people here knew English. I understood that the richer people with higher education knew English (like Punjabi’s at the Cricket match) but some police officers did not understand any English which confused me.


Witnessing the second international cricket game (India Vs West Indies) ever played at the picturesque stadium in Dharamsala

Witnessing the second international cricket game (India Vs West Indies) ever played at the picturesque stadium in Dharamsala

Our first main place where we stayed was Sarah College and before arriving I didn’t think much about how much people would or would not know English at Sarah College. I was pleasantly surprised with how good some of the students English was, but was also surprised by some things that I thought were very simple but many students misused. It was sometimes hard to have conversations with my roommate and other people’s roommates, but there was still a lot of communication that could happen.

Going into conversation class for the first time was quite overwhelming! We had barely even learned the alphabet and we were told to try to read words. Many of us just wanted to cry from how difficult it was. There were many letters for each syllable that were not always pronounced and sometimes multiple syllables for each word and then to add to this difficulty the written language separates syllables, rather than words, so it’s hard to tell when a new word starts and ends. I felt like my head was going to explode. Thankfully for the most part our language partners were good at explaining, but sometimes our partners did not know much English which made us that much more confused. Eventually as the days continued, we learned more in class, and with the continuation of the conversation class we all got a lot better at speaking Tibetan. We were even told that we were the best at conversing in Tibetan than any other group who didn’t have the conversation classes.


Students and their roommates at the last Sarah dinner before moving in with their host families in Mc Leod Ganj

The week before we moved in with our host families we went out to dinner with them and Greg Mahler. Before the dinner we (the students) were sitting in a room at the Institute of Buddhist Dialectics waiting for our family members to come. But the nerves didn’t hit hard until my Ama La (mom) came in. She was quite wonderful and giggled a lot, but we were very unable to keep up a conversation together. While I was struggling with my Ama La, I was listening to all the other groups and was jealous of how easy it was for them to communicate. We went to our host family’s houses and when I got there they were trying to tell me that my little host sister was sick so they couldn’t go out to dinner. Eventually I talked with my friend’s host mom and she helped translate for me.

But once I actually moved into my host family’s house I realized that the amount of English that I thought my family knew was actually more. I think that we were all too nervous the first day to try harder with communicating with each other. I was nervous in the beginning because the amount of people who actually lived in the house was incorrect and I was unable to figure it out without someone translating for us. Eventually it was a good thing that there were an extra two people in the house for communication purposes.

Once these initial realizations occurred I found a lot of ways to bond with my family in English and Tibetan. As my vocabulary enlarged and my self-confidence increased I played some games with my younger host sister. We pulled out a book of animal pictures with their Tibetan and English names. Then we tried to read out each other’s language version of the same animal. It was fun to learn more from my little sister and to teach her at the same time. We both have a lot of work to do to be better at speaking each other’s language so this was a great bonding experience.

Kendra and her sister

Kendra and her sister


Then, another day my big sister’s boyfriend was over and we played a game called Sho. It is a dice game which helped me with counting in Tibetan and we all had many laughs with enjoying each other’s company and we joked about messing up phrases in each other’s languages. It was a fun night of learning Tibetan language, culture, and a bit more about my host family.

Jensen and I decided not to go very far for independent travel which was last week. Sure it could have been a great opportunity to explore more of India, but we have gone on many outings as a group and we both felt very exhausted from the traveling. So, we went to Benny’s house. He is the TA of this program, just graduated from Earlham last year and grew up here in town. While the town of Dharamsala seems like a small town, it actually encompasses many little villages, one of which Benny lives in. We had to walk about 20 minutes from any road to get to his house, but once we were there man was it a great time. While we were there we learned that his 6 dogs know more languages than we do. Being raised by a German and Austrian (his parents) and his siblings (who knew German, Tibetan, English and Hindi) and by the neighbors who spoke a local language of the village made the dogs know many different commands in an assortment of languages.

A view of Mc Leod Ganj, the part of Dharamsala in which students lived for the second half of the program

A view of Mc Leod Ganj, the part of Dharamsala in which students lived for the second half of the program

A lady down the hill, Shtashna is like the nanny/second mom of the house and prepared us food and made fires for us when it was cold; which was wonderful but a bit challenging at times when trying to communicate. We learned some words in Hindi, like how to say okay, food, house, types of food, my…etc. which didn’t help too much with communication but showed that we took an interest and effort in her language.

Of all the languages I have encountered, the one I have been most surprised with my interaction in India has been English. Not only are there a decent amount of people who live and work here who speak English, but McLeod Ganj in particular has many foreign tourists who either have English as their first language or speak it fluently. Also just like before, I am still quite surprised that maybe half of the police officers I have encountered don’t know much English. But most of all I have felt that I have been losing my English. Sure I spend every day speaking English with students from Earlham, but I am also speaking it with others who don’t speak it well. So, I have picked up on the ways they speak it incorrectly and I am starting to butcher different sayings in English that I haven’t heard very often in the past few months. Generally I shorten sentences and when someone asks me if I have the jar of Nutella, instead of saying “I have it”, I just say “I have”. And in general we just have not been completing sentences and leaving out the direct object.