IWL Spring Speaker Series: Rupert Snell, 4/9/15
Professor & Director of Hindi Urdu Flagship Program, Department of Asian Studies, University of Texas at Austin
Title: What is proficiency in Hindi?
This illustrated talk addresses the teaching of Hindi in the new ways that have become de rigueur within the academy in recent years. South Asian languages have some interesting features that set them apart; and the strong presence of English in the subcontinent continues to have a major impact on patterns of language use, on the opportunities for advanced learning, and on the perceptions of speakers and learners. There is also much to consider regarding the desire for Hindi to serve as India’s ‘national language’ — an issue that has been in the headlines ever since India achieved Independence nearly seventy years ago. The study and teaching of Hindi brings countless rewards: a linguistic, literary, and spiritual heritage looking back to Sanskrit as an enduring classical forbear; a complex relationship with Urdu; a richly abundant pre-modern literature in dialects of the day; a diversely imaginative body of contemporary writing; and a linguistic articulacy with many wondrous tricks up its sleeve. Learners of Hindi take on a considerable challenge as they set out on their long journey. Many destinations may beckon, many vistas may appeal; but what is the learner’s ultimate aim, and how best can we show the way? What is proficiency in Hindi?
I have been teaching Hindi at UT Austin since 2006, having plowed a similar but longer furrow at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, for the previous three decades. The many boons of my work include the joys of teaching, the articulacy and variety of contemporary Hindi language, and the fascination of pre-modern poetry in the Braj and Awadhi dialects; my banes include the idolization of Assessment in the academy. Like many who toil in small academic fields filled with lush real-world crops, I am necessarily a jack-of-all-trades, presenting myself as a medievalist when among modernists (and vice versa), a philologist when among literati, and a poetics-wallah when among linguists. I take great pleasure in literary translation (e.g. In the Afternoon of Time, 1998: the autobiography of Hindi poet Harivansh Rai Bachchan) and am currently translating a deliciously sensuous 17th-century Braj Bhasha poem, the Satsai of Biharilal, for Harvard’s Murthy Classical Library of India. (Writing a novel about the poet fills some of the gaps left by an ahistorical literary historiography.) Other current projects include an expanded new edition of The Hindi Classical Tradition: a Braj Bhasha Reader (1991, now out of print) and two more ‘readers’: one on Autobiographical Writing in Hindi, the other on the Ramcharitmanas (Tulsidas’ great 15th-c. Ramayana in Awadhi). After a quarter of a century, some of my published language courses have acquired the same patina of age as their author, often lacking the pedagogical insights of today — but they still have their uses, especially when supplemented with the many online materials that I continue to produce with real delight. As a result of unknowable karma I am currently Director of the Hindi Urdu Flagship at UT Austin. This is the only South Asian member of The Language Flagship, and presents a great opportunity for developing Hindi-Urdu pedagogy — as well as being a very real excuse for the slow progress of my own beloved writing projects mentioned above.