Why Don’t I Just Learn the Script?

I’m feeling a little inspired by a recent post on learning a new alphabet. This is a blog about learning Korean, but when you’re self-studying a difficult language, you gotta take what you can get. I think of it as “interdisciplinary learning.” And Korean is one of those languages I’d love to learn when I have the time–not because of “Squid Game,” but because of my favorite drama “Who Are You?” A female detective, a ghost lover, and an array of cold case mysteries–what more could you want in a drama? 

Although Urdu (which uses the Arabic script) seems a far cry from Korean, they have one major similarity–it’s a completely different alphabet from English. 

Now, I have actually made a foray into studying the script before (even though CWM might not believe me). A few years ago, I had a very long commute to work. I took the train to the subway to the mean city streets to get to my office. This gave me an opportunity to do something other than listen to music (this was before I got hooked on podcasts). So I took my little “Read and Write Urdu Script” book and studied it for at least an hour every day, sometimes two. Occasionally, I tried to do the writing exercises.

But trying to soak up information while being jostled on a crowded commuter train is much different than sitting in a classroom. It was a little maddening to try to slowly sound out groups of letters, feeling like a toddler. And, as a grown-up, you don’t get the same doting patience when you’re trying to sound out words on a menu at a Pakistani restaurant, for instance. Sometimes it’s so much easier to just rely on other people to translate…or, in fact, read the transliteration.

After my commute changed, these letters were quickly forgotten. And although I can still identify alif, kaf, and gaf, my eyes glaze over when I see lots of words.

Here are some special challenges with the Arabic script (and Urdu in particular):

  1. This script has something against vowels. Except for “alif” (A), you pretty much have to know what the word is in order to read it. There are 3 main vowel indicators–zabar, zer, and pesh–but unless you’re looking at a dictionary or the Qu’ran you’re not going to see these. That poses a difficulty for non-classroom learners. Should you learn to speak it or read it first? 
  1. There are 35 letters (in the Urdu alphabet, at least), compared to the 26 in the English (Roman) alphabet.
  1. If you think you’re just learning 35 letters, think again! Most letters have a final, medial, initial, and independent form. The independent and final forms usually look the same. But that leaves you with over 100 different permutations! 
  1. Everything is written right to left (which is easy enough to get used to).
  1. Urdu has a special writing style called nasta’liq. As with all calligraphy styles, it’s beautiful yet deadly. As you’re trying to track down the medial forms, the letters all seem to walk up the stairs and disappear into the mist. Before identifying the letter, you’ll have to find it first! (To all the publishers of Urdu textbooks–please make the font bigger!!)

But there are 2 huge benefits to putting in the time and effort:

  1. According to Wikipedia, the Arabic script is used for Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, Uyghur, Kurdish, Punjabi, Sindhi, Balti, Balochi, Pashto, Kashmiri, Rohingya, Somali, and others. So if you’re interested in learning some of these later on, you’ve done the hard part already.
  1. Without knowing the script, you lose out on a lot of resources for self-study. I just found a new one, brought to you by the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (no transliteration there, surprise surprise). You can’t read books in your target language, or even news articles. And did you know that if you click on the news in different languages, it features different articles? I want to see those! There is such a thing as a “script ceiling.”

A lot of textbooks (and classes) start out with a Sound & Script section. If you’re in the military, this is apparently referred to as “scream and scribble”–which sounds very “on brand.” But even in a super accelerated program like the Defense Language Institute (DLI), learning the basics of the script takes up to a month. And when you’re eager to start learning conversations, that’s a loooooong time at the starting gate.

Well, back to the alphabet for me. I’ll be watching the children’s version. Too bad they don’t include all the forms. I guess you’d need a much longer song for that…

Putting Your Blinders On: Jealousy and Language Learning

In my first year of law school, my criminal law professor told us to “put your blinders on and keep your head down” in order to get through with our mental health intact. Like a horse at the races. In law school, everyone is trying to do the same thing–get on law review, try out for the same competitions, apply for the same fellowships. If you want to do something, chances are there are about 200 people trying to do the exact same thing. And the worst part is, not all of those 200 people actually want it. They just think they need it. 

Suffice it to say, as a first generation law student with no clue and mediocre grades, I was relegated to finding things that no one else wanted to do. Which wasn’t a bad strategy, all things considered. But it was very hard not to let the green monster of jealousy take over at times, especially when you heard people complaining about things that you actually wanted to do. Looking back, everything worked out for the best. Hindsight is 20/20, as they say.

When you’re working towards a language goal, it’s even more important to put those blinders on. You will, for instance, be traveling on a bus, when some white guy sits in the row in front of you, right beside an Urdu-speaking family. Does he happen to be fluent? Why yes! Does he strike up  a conversation, chatting happily for the rest of the trip in fairly decent Urdu? Why yes! And are you kicking yourself because you can’t follow most of what he’s saying? Why yes! 

It’s easy to become demoralized on a language learning journey. It’s just human nature to compare ourselves to others. The key is to make a factually correct comparison. That white guy on the bus, for instance. I didn’t know him. He could have lived in India or Pakistan for quite a while, or learned the language extensively in school. How could I compare him to me, when I was just starting to learn with a dinky language app? 

Also, if you’re watching those videos on YouTube by self-proclaimed linguists who tell you how they learned a language in just 4 weeks–stop it now! Social media is full of false advertising, and this is no different. Those people who claim to be “fluent” in a short period of time? They’re not. (And what even is fluency? A question for another post…). At best, they’ve memorized some basic phrases and have a rudimentary beginner’s understanding of the language. If they’re good at something, it’s having the courage to practice speaking right away. 

There’s another video series called the “American Rickshaw Wala,” where a young, white American guy decks out an old rickshaw and travels around Pakistan in a cowboy hat, communicating in fairly fluent Urdu. It’s particularly demoralizing to my own slow progress to see another American speaking another language so well. Nothing against my own people, but Americans are among the most infamously monolingual people in the world. 

If you really unpack this, there’s a systemic de-emphasis on second language acquisition (even though the US does NOT even have an official language–fun fact). There’s a lack of publicly-funded quality language programs. A good majority of people have never even traveled outside of their state, let alone country. One of our two neighboring countries is also an English-speaking nation (for the most part). And, in many places, you’ll be targeted for speaking a “foreign” language in public, especially if you’re not white. If you are white, you’ll probably be praised, unless of course you don’t look very “American” (I guess you can’t win). 

Race, ethnicity, and even national language is a social construct and the deeper you dive, the more arbitrary it becomes.

I got off topic…being jealous of the American Rickshaw Wala’s Urdu skills. After doing some digging, I discovered that this guy went to a very nice, private high school in California. Where they had an intensive language program. Where he learned Urdu. So if you’re a struggling, self-taught student, you can’t make a fair comparison. And the Rickshaw Wala still had a ways to go in terms of learning some of the subtler nuances of Pakistani culture/society. 

Everyone has their own language learning path. It’s a lifetime endeavor, after all! If your progress looks different then someone else’s, just try to do the best you can with what you’ve got. Don’t worry about the rest. And when your blinders fail, just stick to the facts!

Helpful Resources for Learning Urdu

Here it is. The post that would have saved me a lot of time when I first started out. I’m going to start with the most helpful resources first, then go down the line until we reach the Mango Languages app (Duo Lingo doesn’t even compare–ask your local or university library to buy a subscription. And tell them not to be cheap about it!). I’m still using the free subscription from my old library…

Aside from the specific links, these can be useful for any language! And you don’t have to spend a fortune, either, unless you obsessively buy language learning books…I’m not admitting to anything. My table is totally clean (pictured above).

  1. Online Tutor. I had an online tutor long before the pandemic even hit. If you live in most places in the US, you will not find an Urdu tutor. My preference, of course, would have been to meet with someone in a local coffee shop (like my friend who was learning Spanish). But the next best thing is getting an online tutor from sites such as iTalki or Verbling. The prices are very reasonable. The only drawback is that your lessons on Verbling, at least, will expire if you buy too many in advance (maybe that’s supposed to motivate you?). The most important aspect is that it forces you to speak and apply the language. And you’ll get better results if you show up for frequent lessons–more than once a week! I apologize to my very patient Urdu tutor who has had to deal with me ghosting for long periods of time–my work schedule is all over the place these days. 
  1. Writing Things Down and Looking Them Up. Every self-study language book, video, blog post–you name it–will tell you that the most efficient way to learn a language is to learn the most commonly used words or phrases first. For a lot of languages, there are helpful lists that are easy to look up. For Urdu, not so much. Fortunately, you have a trusty paper and pen (or note app on your phone) that you can use to write down the words and phrases you hear the most–at home, listening to other people’s conversations, in a YouTube video. Think of yourself as a Language Spy, listening, writing notes, and then trying out different spellings on google translate. It’s tricky sometimes, but well worth the effort. That brings us to our next resource…
  1. YouTube Videos. I won’t beat around the bush. There are 3 YouTube channels that are helpful for learning the nuts and bolts of Urdu: Urdu Academy Jakarta, Learn Urdu with Sara, and UrduPod 101. Go, watch these! There are also a number of Urdu-speaking YouTubers you can watch if you want entertainment as well as listening practice: Urdu Mom, WildLens by Abrar and Raahi, for example (the last two are motorcycling vloggers in Pakistan and the first one is a Canadian-Pakistani mom with super adorable kids, mashallah). If you are learning Urdu because of your spouse/significant other and are planning to travel to Pakistan at some point, you may be tempted to watch all of the foreign, white travel vloggers on YouTube (especially if a global pandemic breaks out right around the time you were planning to go…). Yes, you know you should be watching local vloggers, but you still don’t know Urdu very well yet, and they didn’t come up in your YouTube search engine…figures. Don’t worry, I’ll wade into that hornet’s nest in another blog post.
  1. Podcasts! I’m a huge podcast fan (even though I’m not willing to pay for over-salted guacamole on toast and believe that pumpkin spice lattes violate the Truth in Advertising laws), so I was pleased to find a few podcasts that could help me with language learning. Here are ones to check out:
    • Urdu Seekhiye. Created by a woman in DC who couldn’t find many resources for learning Urdu (we can all relate…). English translation included, and slow enough to understand! The brilliance of this woman cannot be understated. There’s a companion website as well. Thank you, Shireen! Thank you.
    • Bachpan ki Kahaniyan. A woman who reads “children’s” stories (similar to the pure brutality of Aesop’s Fables). Occasional English translation in a very subtle and helpful way! My 4-year old nephew got bored when I tried to get him to listen with me, but maybe he was too young to be captivated by a disembodied voice.
    • Mooroo Podcast. I haven’t listened to this one much, but it’s a famous guy who invites other famous people for interviews. 
    • The Jinn Experience. There are only 3 episodes right now, but if you like ghost stories and are looking for some real-world listening practice, this is one to listen to. (Maybe if they get more views, they’ll make more episodes!)
    • Doorbeen. A podcast aimed at diaspora kids, aged 7-12. Each episode talks about mundane, kid-friendly subjects. Entirely in Urdu as much as I can tell. 
    • Urdunama. If you love poetry, you’ll love this podcast. Urdu poetry, explained in Urdu. Probably best for more advanced learners…so not me, yet! 
  1. The BBC. Since the British have historically caused so much trouble (okay okay, America too), the least they can do is help us learn the language of the countries they messed with. The BBC has a website that gives you some very basic, transliterated words and phrases. And I think it also links you to a site called Surface Languages, which has some really helpful flashcards. BBC also has a radio news show called BBC Urdu. 
  1. Mango Languages. This is a more helpful cousin of Duo Lingo that lives behind a paywall. Get your library to buy a subscription, no need to pay for that yourself! If you’re just starting out, this will give you a nice boost. But it won’t really help you have a conversation…unless you’re trying to get to Anarkali Bazaar. 

Happy listening! And please leave a comment if you have other resources!

How Do I Find Resources for Learning an “Obscure” Language without Tearing My Hair Out?

 To preface this, Urdu is technically not an “obscure” language. 

It’s spoken by about 170 million people around the world (and counting), according to Wikipedia. Hindi is a close relative, so you sort of get a 2 for 1 deal. You’ll also get to enjoy all the Bollywood films without having to seriously improve your speed reading. (Why do they talk so fast in “Andaz Apna Apna”??) You can enjoy classic Ghazals written by the great Mughal poets. And if you learn the script, it opens up a whole new world of not understanding even more languages. 

However, Urdu is not the most popular language, so finding resources takes some digging.

If you’d like me to save you the trouble of going through unhelpful resources, please read on. If you’d like to skip to something actually useful, I will list all my favorite Urdu resources in the next post. But be careful: those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it.

Did you know the US State Department offers free language learning courses through its Foreign Service Institute (FSI)? And sites like Live Lingua has made them available to the public! But don’t get too excited if your target language isn’t French, Spanish, German, Igbo, or Chinyanja. Spoiler alert: there’s no Urdu.

The FSI also rates different languages based on difficulty for native English speakers. Urdu is classified as a “Category III Language” (which makes it sound like a hurricane). Category III languages can apparently be acquired in 44 weeks (or 1100 class hours). Ha! Is all I have to say to that.

If you go further down the rabbit hole, you’ll find the 101 Languages website where they also list FSI courses…of which Urdu is still not one. But there is an intriguing link to “Language Survival Kits.” You click on it because you’re starting to get desperate. 

Voila! Worst fears realized. It’s called a “survival kit,” not because it will teach you how to order breakfast in Karachi, but because it will help deployed soldiers conduct an interrogation. But because you’re a glutton for disappointment, you start clicking on the lessons, thinking you might still salvage something from this internet nightmare. And then you discover that the only Urdu you’ll learn here is: “Page not found.”

The FSI method has a lot of pros (it’s freeeeee!!), but has also been described in one review as outdated, business/military oriented, and slightly sexist. So I guess Urdu language learners aren’t missing much. Unless you’re a sexist general from the 1970s. 

Another seemingly good resource is Facebook. One such Facebook group is called “Learn Urdu Fast.” Perfect! You think. 

However, as you scroll through the posts, you soon realize that perhaps you won’t be able to use these phrases in your daily life…unless you live in some kind of Pakistani Drama, or aspire to be a gangster.  

Here are some gems:

Don’t point your finger. Ungli mat dikha.

I will break your teeth, understood? Daant tor dunga tumhare, samjhe?

Don’t tell me what to do. Mujhe mat batao ke kya karna hai.

Don’t you dare take my father’s name. Merey baap par jane ki himmat mat karna.

Do I look like a fool to you? Kya bewaqoof lagta hun tumhe?

What will you do? Kya kar lo gay tum?

One surprisingly unhelpful resource? Textbooks. The first two or three chapters are wonderful. But then they somehow decide that you’ve learned the script at this point and everything slowly morphs into nasta’liq. If it’s possible to find an actual class in your area, you could maybe learn to read, write, and speak at the same time. But if not, you’re pretty much on your own. And if you’re also learning a language while trying to hold down a full time job during a global pandemic–forget it. 

In my next post, batten down the hatches! This Category III language is making landfall!

My Chai Journey: The “Chai Tea Latte” Addendum

Yes, I used to say “chai tea latte.” 

Then I heard someone (or really several people) make a very convincing argument in the form of a PSA that goes something like this: “It annoys me when people say ‘chai tea,’ because they’re essentially saying ‘tea tea.’ Chai means tea, people!” 

This is true, of course. There’s a whole linguistic history about how the word meaning “a delicious drink made from steeping leaves in water” has two roots–“tea” and “cha.” So part of the world says something like “tea” and the other part of the world says something like “cha.” And never the twain shall meet…until globalization, that is.

If anyone remembers the movie “Mickey Blue Eyes,” there’s a scene where a disgruntled Englishman in America, played by Hugh Grant (who else!), points out that a restaurant called “The La Trattoria” just means “The The Trattoria.” And anytime the phrase “chai tea latte” slips out (which it still does on occasion, no one’s perfect!) or I hear it in line at the coffee shop, my mind always goes to that scene. 

Because this is a very American thing to say. 

Keep in mind, America is also the creator of the “dirty chai”–a mix of milky tea and espresso. Which I think is an abomination, but which CWM has voluntarily ordered, even after hearing what’s in it. 

And to maybe give an explanation (not a defense) as to why Americans sometimes persist in saying “chai tea,” chai is usually associated with a very specific type of tea here. Blame marketing. And the American habit of refusing to fix any errors, even after they have been pointed out…

While “chai” literally translates to “tea,” it’s most commonly associated with the Asian continent. And when you ask any Joe Schmo on the streets of America, he’ll tell you that “chai” is a particular blend of black tea and spices inspired by South Asia, usually sold in tea bags. Or maybe, he’ll tell you to stick your fancy schmancy tea where the sun don’t shine. He prefers a nice cup o’ Joe. 

End End

The Secret to Making Really Good Chai: or My Chai Journey

I have a secret to tell you…it’s about chai! 

And before you say, “who’s this gora trying to teach me about chai?” I’ll say that I’m not trying to teach anyone anything. I’m just so proud that in between my attempts to speak Urdu and navigate a multitude of little culture clashes, I have at least learned how to make Really Good Chai.

Here’s how it happened:

Driving home from my law school friend’s house one New Year’s Eve years ago, CWM asked me, “Where did your friend learn how to make dood patti?” 

She’s one of those effortlessly stylish people. And everytime I visited, she made the best chai–creamy and spicy. Now, I know that “chai” just means “tea.” But this is what I call chai-chai (the reduplicative strikes again!), also called “dood patti,” or milk with (tea) leaves. This is the one foreigners rave about when they visit the subcontinent. Although she was born and raised in Texas, some Moroccan friends passed these skills on to her. And even CWM, who grew up in the Land of Chai, was pretty impressed. 

I would watch her make it on occasion. But no matter how many times I tried to replicate her ingredients and “boil twice” method, it would never taste as creamy and good. At the time, I chalked it up to the fact that food (and chai) always tastes better when someone else makes it. 

Much later, my little sister (we call her Baby Shark because she’s in law school now), shared a recipe for “Yogi tea.” It was based on the Good Earth tea brand that was popular during the health-food movement in the 60s and 70s. And when the pandemic hit and my favorite chai concentrate was hard to find, I decided to give it a try.

It calls for:

  • 2 quarts water
  • 15 whole cloves
  • 20 black peppercorns
  • 3 sticks cinnamon
  • 20 whole cardamom pods, split
  • 8 ginger slices
  • ½ teaspoon black tea

Then, you boil it on the stove for about 2 hours until it becomes a concentrate that you can store in the fridge. Add milk and, voila!, you have an iced chai latte. Baby Shark likes to editorialize recipes for me. So she told me to boil that thing for “a long-a** time.” 

Later, I turned down the spices a bit (I was starting to run out!), didn’t reduce it quite as much, added milk to the boil, and made it most Sunday mornings. CWM was happy with it and I was too. At that point, I was resigned to leaving the really creamy dood patti to the professionals…

Until one day, CWM’s sister came to visit and it finally clicked. While we were making breakfast, she put the tea in the pot to boil and then kept boiling it. It eventually settled into an orderly bubble (no mean feat, let me tell you–my pot hath bubbled over many a time) until a medium-brown skin began to form. And that’s how you know it’s done. 

Some people keep aerating it while it’s bubbling, especially if they don’t want a skin–see for example, Ruby ka Kitchen, the fabulous food vlogger whose makeup and outfit is always on point.

Some people use Yellow Label Lipton patti.

Some people add sugar…sometimes a lot of sugar!

But the most important thing is to let it boil for a long-a** time.

“Chai Shai” and the Delightful Double Words of Urdu

“What’s ‘books wooks’?” I asked my husband out of the blue one morning. I had watched a language video and the phrase sounded adorable! There was a translation–(some) books–but then why wouldn’t you use “kuch books” (“some books”)?

Books wooks?” He looked confused for a moment, and rightly so. I’ll refer to him here as Cricket-Watching Man, or CWM for short (X-Files, anyone?). Let’s just say, some stereotypes exist for a reason…

A scuffle ensued while I tried to explain the context and he looked at me like I was crazy. I guess some double words (or “reduplication” as it’s officially called) are less universal than others. 

Finally: “That’s just a nonsense word. There’s no direct translation. Like ‘chai shai.’ I guess it can mean ‘and stuff’.”

I was immediately charmed. Chai and stuff. And that “stuff” would inevitably be something to go with chai, like biscuits, cake, or maybe pakoray. Yum!

CWM gave me some more examples:

  • Kaprey shaprey (clothes and stuff)
  • Khanna shanna (food and stuff)

And then I started to hear it all the time:

  • Lekin vakin (and stuff)
  • Choti moti (little bitty)
  • Kabhi kabhi (sometimes)

I love these rhyming words in particular because (1) it has a familiar feel–we have similar expressions in English!–and (2) it’s something you can say fast and maybe sound like a native. Of course, trying to sound like a native has its own drawbacks. Someone might think you actually know the language (ha!) and then you’re stuck in a sort of fake conversation, where only one person knows what’s being said and all you can do is nod and smile. (I’ve had many of these…) 

I think of the Yiddish-inspired slang that Americans use all the time. Like “fancy schmancy,” “Joe schmo,” or the yet more complicated “homework schmomework!”–the latter often followed by throwing said homework papers over your shoulder in a dismissive manner. This is a little different from “chai shai,” because the “schm–” is used to express cheeky derision. 

In a more scholarly article, the linguist Chi Luu points out that this reduplication actually happens in many, many languages (look! I did it there). And it happens in English more than you’d think–nitty gritty, wishy washy, chit-chat are some examples she gives. There are even times when we say a word twice, either for emphasis, or to question the degree: “Do you just like him, or do you like-like him?” 

While we sometimes dismiss this type of speech as a bit childish, grown-ups certainly use it too. Luu gives an example of someone asking if a store was “closed? Or closed-closed?” And I’ve often said, “I need to wake up early-early.” Really early! You can say the same in Urdu as well–“subah subah.”

Fun to say (in any language), and a much needed break from slogging through grammar rules. If you want to read more about “chai shai,” here’s an excellent article by Farah Nazir

What are your favorite reduplications?

About Me

Welcome and Khush Amdeed!

My great-grandmother was born in Sweden, spent her childhood in France, and then moved with her family to America. Growing up, she and her siblings would switch back and forth from English to Swedish to French. My mom remembers her staying up late, studying her French verbs. Interest might be hereditary, but diligence you have to learn.

I studied French in high school, and took a few more classes in college. I learned just enough to pretend to understand a French tour in Italy but not enough to chat with a perfume store clerk in Germany (don’t ask). I flirted with Spanish a little. Became addicted to K-dramas in law school. And then I married a Pakistani man and the rest is Urdu!

After trying for years to find a relatable blog about one woman’s quest to learn about a whole new language and culture from scratch (Sit down, Rosie Gabrielle, I said relatable!) I’ve decided to write one myself. I feel stuck in the “advanced beginner” category. I know just enough about Pakistani culture to know that I’m woefully ignorant. And I spend more time watching videos on language learning tips than actually learning the language. But I hope I’m not the only one struggling! 

So grab some chai and get ready for some gupshup.