Discovering India, Hindi and a Career

In the United States, AIIS language programs are considered the “gold standard” for learning Indian languages, says Philip Lutgendorf.

By Philip Lutgendorf

September 2023

Discovering India, Hindi and a Career

Hindi poet Ashok Vajpayee (from left), Philip Lutgendorf and literary critic Harish Trivedi at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2016, where Lutgendorf released the first volume of his translation, “The Epic of Ram.” (Photograph courtesy Bharat Tiwari/JLF)

In 1978, I was a graduate student at The University of Chicago, enrolled in “Intermediate Hindi.” I had fallen in love with north India on several trips as a young tourist and knew that Hindi was the key to communicating with a diverse range of local people. But now I was frustrated by the slow progress I was making in twice-a-week sessions with an instructor who spoke mainly English in class. Luckily, I heard about the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) “Intensive Advanced Hindi Program,” then located in Delhi, applied to it, and was awarded a U.S. Department of Education-funded fellowship for the full academic year in 1979-80. It is no exaggeration to say that this year changed my life.

Classes, held in Defence Colony, were excellent and mainly in Hindi—taught by three female teachers who were high-energy, enthusiastic and involved in the city’s cultural scene: art, theatre, music and dance. They helped students learn vocabulary, read a variety of texts, practice conversation and discussion, write compositions, even shop and navigate bus routes. They took us on field trips to historic sites in Delhi and further afield—to Jaipur, Lucknow, and Banaras. There were also weekly cooking classes for which we shopped in the bazaar for ingredients, accompanied by a teacher, and then collectively prepared recipes written in Hindi, to be shared by the group (four decades later, I still use some of these!). Since I was accompanied by my wife and 2-year-old daughter, some of the events, especially parties on festival days, became “family affairs,” much to our delight.

The knowledge and skills I took away from that year laid a solid foundation for the rest of my graduate study, and for my Ph.D. dissertation research, two years later, on the performance traditions of the Hindi Ramayan (Goswami Tulsidas Rancharitmanas)during which my family (now with two children) lived for two years in smaller, Hindi-speaking cities. This led, in turn, to my later research and publications on Hindi literature, folklore and cinema, and to my 33-year career teaching Hindi language and courses on Indian history and culture to students at the University of Iowa.

Naturally, I told my language classes about the AIIS program—which gradually expanded to offer all levels of Hindi and relocated to Banaras and later to Jaipur—and some of my best students joined it and had their own life-changing experiences. Good as it was in my time, the program became even better in ensuing years when Professors Herman van Olphen (The University of Texas at Austin) and Surendra Gambhir (University of Pennsylvania), both experts in Second Language Acquisition, became successive Chairs of the AIIS Language Committee and began conducting professional development workshops to acquaint teachers with new tools, technology and approaches to language pedagogy.

In time, I was invited to serve on the committee and to eventually succeed Professor Gambhir as chair. Part of the job involved making site visits to AIIS language programs (not just Hindi, of course, since the Institute teaches as many as 15 Indian languages, mainly in locations where each is spoken) during the summer and academic year. I would interview students and teachers, take suggestions, write reports and sometimes join in cooking classes or at least in ensuing meals. Such site visits have helped ensure that the programs continue to evolve to reflect current theories of language learning, students’ needs and India’s fast-changing culture-scape.

In the United States today, as well as at leading universities in the UK and Europe, AIIS language programs are rightly regarded as the “gold standard” in Indian language instruction, and the Hindi program has always been the largest and most popular of these. We have worked hard to earn this reputation, and we are very proud of our dedicated teachers, who are the heart of the program. Over the years, the institute has nurtured a cadre of superb educators who are passionate about sharing their language and cultural heritage with adult learners coming from abroad.

Energetic and imaginative, they work tirelessly in the classroom and in preparing instructional materials, organizing “scavenger hunts,” inviting monolingual guest speakers representing varied occupations, and networking with community organizations for which students sometimes volunteer. They also set up homestays, orient host families, and, occasionally, deal with medical and other emergencies with efficiency and empathy. My admiration for them, born of my own experience as a student, has only grown through my service on the language committee and visits to their program centers. Every one of them is a cultural ambassador and unsung hero of person-to-person U.S.-India diplomacy.

Philip Lutgendorf is a professor emeritus of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at University of Iowa. He was president of the American Institute of Indian Studies from 2010 to 2018.

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