Indian street sign in four languages: Hindi, English, Punjabi and Urdu. (Credit: baklavabaklava via Flickr)

I spent several months in Lucknow, India, studying Urdu.

I knew that it would be a daunting task. But I had a leg up — it wasn’t going to be completely new. Several years ago, I’d studied Hindi, which the native tongue of about 25 percent of Indians. The country’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, appears to favor Hindi, which has alarmed speakers of India’s many other languages.

To the untrained ear, Hindi and Urdu sound similar. They share a lot of the same vocabulary. But they use different scripts. And they have different connotations.

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When Narendra Modi of the right-of-center Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was sworn in as India’s newest prime minister on May 26, political observers — and language enthusiasts — started speculating whether his rule would lead to a renewed interest in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India’s Brahmin scholars. At least two dozen newly elected members of Parliament took their oaths in Sanskrit, Hari Kumar of the New York Times reported. The language is widely backed by the Hindu right wing, which helped Modi come to power (the BJP is a spawn of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a volunteer Hindu nationalist group).

Hindu nationalists “see the language as a link to a civilization uncorrupted by Persian-speaking Muslim emperors and English-speaking British viceroys,” the New York Times’ Ellen Barry wrote in a letter to readers. “Early independence leaders had hoped to phase out English as an official language, but that provoked widespread protests in the country’s south, where Hindi is not widely spoken.” Hindi and English are both considered official languages in India.

Now, just less than a month since the new government came to power, the focus has shifted away from Sanskrit and onto one of its language descendants: Hindi.

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Thanks to the efforts of 13,000 volunteers worldwide, Twitter is now available in Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew and Urdu, according to a company blog post. Twitter had been working on translating and localizing these right-to-left languages since January 25.
These languages posed unique challenges for Twitter. To overcome technical barriers, Twitter’s engineering team had to build a new set of special tools to ensure that these tweets, hashtags and numbers would behave as their counterparts in left-to-right languages. Not only that, but some of these languages are spoken — and therefore will be tweeted — in locations where Twitter is officially blocked. Twitter was a recognizable force in the Arab Spring — but given that there wasn’t yet an Arabic interface, most of the users who tweeted from those regions did so in non-native languages.
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I love receiving letters and emails from my students. Inexplicably, their simple English and their process of articulating it becomes poetry. I don’t just read their words; I read the effort behind their words, their expressions on their faces as they anticipate my reaction upon delivery of the mail, their hesitations before responding to any questions that I have. I know this for the students who are in my presence because I can see them. For the students who email me from home, I see all of this and more. I see how I am in composing my own email back — thoughtful, careful, worried, inspired, hunched over my computer in unanticipated stress — and I know that anything that I am feeling is nothing compared to what is going on in the heads and hearts of my students.

My students. It is still weird for me to say that, yet now, more than ever, I know that it is true. I used to think that I could never be at the same level as the other teachers, and I can’t deny that a part of me still thinks this. After all, I am an Assistant Language Teacher. I can’t spend as much time with the students because I have to switch schools. I could never be a homeroom teacher or a coach for the same reason. And let’s not forget the obvious: I don’t speak Japanese.

Yet in the pauses that are inevitable when people who speak different languages try to communicate — in the pauses that I experience on a daily basis — there’s that poetry again. The silence has a weight that ceases to be a burden because there’s so much sincerity behind it. And that’s when I know that even though I am an Assistant Language Teacher, I am a teacher. To know that students want to speak to me, not necessarily because I speak English but in spite of the fact that I speak English, is to know love.

And students sure know how to romance me, because I’m in love back.