Building Scholarship Through Languages

Roma Patel is building her art research skills by studying Hindi in India through U.S. government language programs.

By Giriraj Agarwal

September 2023

Building Scholarship Through Languages

Roma Patel (center) with her host family in Jaipur, where she studied Hindi at the American Institute of Indian Studies. (Photograph courtesy Roma Patel)

Roma Patel was working at an art auction house in New York City when she developed an interest in studying and specializing in Indian art. She enrolled for a master’s degree in modern and contemporary art with a specialization in South Asian art at Columbia University in New York City last fall. “I selected Columbia for a number of reasons—the specialized program, the South Asia Institute as well as the robust language program,” she says.

Patel, who is Indian American, however, soon came to realize the “limitations that language places on scholarship and art historical study in relation to India.” Without knowledge of Hindi, the information she was able to grasp for her research was dramatically lessened.

“I remember visiting India throughout my youth and being unable to understand conversations around me, signs on the streets, or even movies,” she says. “Despite studying Gujarati when I was growing up, Hindi did not come to me naturally, nor did I have spaces to learn or practice using it.”

Patel reached out to Rakesh Ranjan, senior lecturer and coordinator of the Hindi Urdu Program at Columbia University’s Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies. On his advice, she applied to the U.S. Department of State’s Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program as an advanced beginner student. Ranjan also informed her about the Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) fellowship program through the U.S. Department of Education. “I was honored to receive both awards, and begin my Hindi study with the CLS program at the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) in Jaipur for two months in a full immersion program,” says Patel. The CLS course ended in August 2023. She will now begin the FLAS program and study for the full academic year under Ranjan at Columbia.

“Hindi is an incredibly complex language, and at times it felt easier to stay silent than speak. While I was initially discouraged, after my courses began, realizing my grammar had been incorrect before, I found myself continuing to try hard,” Patel remembers. Her teachers at AIIS were helpful and patient. “When needed, they jumped in, ensuring that I felt like I had spoken correctly and was understood. As the summer progressed, I was no longer in fear of my communication abilities—I frequently found myself starting conversations with people in public in order to practice my Hindi.”

Patel says the support AIIS provides for students to study histories in relation to India is incredibly important as there is a wealth of research that is pending. “In their support for U.S. students studying Hindi, they create more opportunities for U.S. students to engage in urgent research,” she says. Even though she studied Gujarati and Spanish in the United States, she had never been in a program that divided the language study into subsections based on skills. “While some students in the advanced beginner class were better readers, others had stronger conversation skills. Through the skill-driven classes for small groups, we were able to receive individualized attention that ensured we progressed in our language study in every regard,” she says.

Patel believes it is important to study Hindi not only to engage with Indians but also to interact with the vast population of Indians living in the United States. “Living in New York, Hindi is everywhere—people on the train, in the street, at Columbia, speak Hindi daily,” she adds. When at home in the United States, Patel watches movies, reads short stories and has karaoke sessions with her family to practice Hindi. She also aims to speak Hindi whenever she calls family members in India or meets Hindi speakers in the United States.

Patel has numerous anecdotes related to her time learning Hindi or using it in daily life in India. She recalls how once, on the train from Jodhpur to Jaipur, she and her friend realized they were sitting across from a Member of Parliament from Rajasthan. “For a few hours, we spoke about our respective families and upbringings as well as politics, and current issues in Rajasthan. Not only were we able to communicate in Hindi, but we were able to glean meaningful insights on life in Rajasthan from our conversation,” she says. Patel has also attended numerous art gallery openings, musical concerts and events and visited historical sites. “I met local artists, historians and curators who shared their perspectives and insights with me, enriching my perception of Indian art, culture and history in ways that I could not have done studying art history in a classroom in New York,” she says. “I found that my experience studying Hindi was directly linked to my ability to learn more about the country that I had visited my whole life.”

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