Peter Friedlander’s Language Journey & Hindi at the ANU: An Interview

Are you interested in learning Hindi as part of your degree in Australia? The Australian National University provides one of only two Hindi programmes in the country where this is possible (the other being La Trobe University). Central to the programme’s success is Dr Peter Friedlander, an Associate-Professor and Reader in Hindi.

As a former student who thoroughly enjoyed the experience of learning Hindi at the ANU, and especially Peter’s classes, I am very grateful he took the time to answer some questions. 

The following interview briefly outlines Peter’s Hindi journey, including some of his motivations, experiences and reflections. We then discuss Hindi at the ANU to shed some light on the programme for prospective students. The pictures below are all painted by Peter.

What initially drew you to India?

I was attracted to India as a child by some of the objects around our house that my father’s mother, Ruth Fischer, had brought back from India when she was there in 1955. She had been friends with M. N. Roy, the founder of the Indian Communist Party, since she met him in the nineteen twenties in Moscow and was finally able to visit him on the way to the Bandung conference. I was fascinated by an ivory Buddha statue and a white soapstone linga that she had brought from her trip that used to sit on a sideboard in a living room. Along with that, I also met my father’s Indian colleagues and their families, who were working with him in the maths department at Cambridge University. Finally, it was an era when the idea of travelling to India after school had become popular amongst my friends, so I set out after school on a road trip and ended up spending most of the period from 1977 to 1982 living in India.

Why did you decide to learn Hindi, and how did you begin? 

I was, and am, an enthusiastic sketcher of the world around me (see the pictures in this article, and for more, click here and here). In India, I found that people constantly wanted to talk to me while I was sketching, and often they were trying to do so in languages other than English. I think the most common question I was asked in English, and probably in other languages, was, what are you drawing? The fascinating thing that got me about this was that the questioners knew all about what I was sketching, but I didn’t know more than it was a fascinating old building, a beautiful landscape, or a lively market. This inspired me to learn an Indian language as I wanted to be able to say to people, ‘what am I drawing? I don’t know really; please tell me what it is that I am drawing!’ Eventually, I decided one day, on a train journey between Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, I should learn the most widely spoken Indian language, which was probably Hindi.

What are some of the ways in which Hindi has enriched your life? Perhaps you could share an experience that illustrates its value. 

Once I had Hindi in my blood, so to speak, I never looked back. Through the experience of studying, I learnt so much. Also, fortunately, one day when I was in a tea shop in Benares and told a man, who turned out to be a professor of language teaching called Krishna Mohan Singh, about my attempts to learn Hindi he asked me if I would like to learn from him, and in exchange teach English in a coaching institute he ran in honour of his grandfather, the Maharishi Vipragupta Institute of Spoken English. So, every evening, I would teach English for a couple of hours, and through that, I learned what it was to be a teacher. I would then sit with Krishna and the head of the school in which the evening classes were held, Mohini Rao, an elderly lawyer who always came for tea, as well as the kid who brought the tea and worked in the school, the peon, as they were called. I learned a lot through studying every evening, and during the day, while I was sketching in the alleyways of the old city, I practised what I had learned the evening before.

One episode in particular showed me that knowing Hindi opened up a whole side to India that was totally different from the experience of somebody who only knew English. I’d gone to stay for a while during one autumn in Madhya Pradesh and become friendly with the band musicians in the village. I also had a guitar with me, which they thought was cool, and they gave me the nickname ‘Rocket’ to go with my new local identity. One day they invited me to attend a wedding in their community. We took a long morning bus ride into the hinterland. Then we walked from noon till dusk up into the hills and finally arrived at a tiny hamlet where I got the impression that I might have been the first westerner to visit there in a very long time. Also, the villagers saw me not as a westerner but an odd member of the untouchable community to which the band members belonged. It was a confronting experience to see how the world was shaped by the views of different communities towards each other, but also immensely rewarding to understand the richness and depth of culture within these oppressed untouchable communities. It literally changed my life, as I have to this day continued to work on the heritage of the communities who followed Ravidas, the patron saint of some of these untouchable communities in India. It would all have been impossible without Hindi.

When designing or revising the Hindi curriculum at the ANU, what learning outcomes do you prioritise for the students? Do your past experiences in India continue to shape this calculation?

During the period when I led the Hindi program at ANU, I always focused on teaching Hindi as a communicative skill that could lead to interactions with Indians from all backgrounds and offer a jumping-off point to studying the incredible richness, diversity and depth of Indian cultures and traditions. My past experiences were intrinsic to this; I wanted students to have the opportunity to learn enough Hindi to dive into discovering the wonders of India.

How would you describe your approach to teaching Hindi at the ANU? Has COVID-19 impacted this in any meaningful way?

I now teach Hindi at ANU along with a younger colleague who has taken over teaching first and second-year classes and will also teach some of the third-year classes this coming year. My approach is based on encouraging students in the first year to learn enough to be able to talk about their own lives in Hindi with Hindi speakers. In the second year, students learn enough to discuss with Hindi speakers what shapes their lives. In the third year, the goal is for students to learn how there are myriad paths to follow through Hindi that can lead to entire worlds opening up for them to explore.

As it’s rare to have large groups of students on any one campus who want to learn Hindi, I’ve been involved in distance education Hindi since I came to Australia in 1996, which evolved over the years into online Hindi. In a sense, this meant that the COVID-19 impact was not quite as overwhelming as I was already teaching students online from all over Australia and the world. But there was an impact in that it meant that we had the opportunity, through language study, to offer support for students in a time of difficulty. This created opportunities to explore how, in challenging times, we could still work together as a community of language learners to travel in a virtual sense in the areas we love through our studies.

How do you envision Hindi and South Asian Studies evolving at the ANU? 

I hope that Hindi and South Asian Studies will continue to flourish at ANU. As part of ANU’s role as a centre for the national delivery of Hindi, Sanskrit and South Asian Studies, we will see a further evolution in the story of Hindi at ANU. 2022 will also mark a significant milestone, as it will be the 50th year of Hindi at ANU. As part of these Golden Jubilee celebrations, I hope that there will be thoughts given not only to the past history of Hindi at ANU but also the shape that its future should take.

What advice would you give to somebody considering learning Hindi from scratch?

Go for it! There is such a lot to explore. Focus on what fascinates you and find ways to learn more about it. Follow your motivations, find out what you want to learn and get support by joining the Hindi courses at ANU. Incorporate Hindi language study into your degree and your life. Immerse yourself in what you want to study and learn to see the world anew through your studies.

If you would like to check out Peter’s researcher profile, which includes his publications, click here! For more information on Hindi at the ANU, click here!

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Ben Barron

Ben loves India and is endlessly fascinated yet perplexed by its vibrant and diverse society. He has engaged with India through backpacking, hiking, interning, volunteering, and studying Hindi. He has also spent time in the broader South Asia region, including a research internship with the Institute of National Security Studies Sri Lanka. Ben is currently pursuing an MSc in Modern South Asian Studies at St Antony's College, Oxford and holds a Bachelor of International Security Studies from the ANU. Additionally, he completed a summer diplomacy programme at King's College London.