Singapore Talking

Speaking Hindi: Dhobi Ghat goes beyond Dhoby Ghaut

Hindi was only taught in Singapore schools from 1990. Today, some 8,000 students take the language as their Mother Tongue.
Putrevu Mihir Niyogi, 15 and Sania Shah, 14, are in the finals of a debate competition for secondary school and junior college students organised by The Hindi Society. Bollywood movies like romantic comedy Meri Pyaari Bindu and political crime thrill
Bollywood movies like romantic comedy Meri Pyaari Bindu and political crime thriller Sarkar 3 in Hindi are shown at Carnival Cinemas, located on the second floor of Shaw Towers.ST PHOTO: LAU FOOK KONG
Putrevu Mihir Niyogi, 15 and Sania Shah, 14, are in the finals of a debate competition for secondary school and junior college students organised by The Hindi Society. Bollywood movies like romantic comedy Meri Pyaari Bindu and political crime thrill
Putrevu Mihir Niyogi, 15 and Sania Shah, 14, are in the finals of a debate competition for secondary school and junior college students organised by The Hindi Society.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
The Hindi Society building at 3, Race Course Lane. There are an estimated 50,000 Hindi speakers in Singapore now, said the society, which offers classes in the language.
The Hindi Society building at 3, Race Course Lane. There are an estimated 50,000 Hindi speakers in Singapore now, said the society, which offers classes in the language.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Singapore is a tapestry of languages, each with its own unique syntax and history. Some are endangered and others are thriving. In the latest instalment of a weekly series, The Straits Times looks at Hindi.

In darkened halls tucked away on the second floor of Shaw Towers, it is not English or any of Singapore's official languages that hold sway.

Instead, Hindi is the tongue most commonly heard inside Carnival Cinemas, which shows mainly Bollywood movies in Hindi, such as romantic comedy Meri Pyaari Bindu and political crime thriller Sarkar 3.

Madam Nalini Natverlal, 48, who runs her own accounting firm , and her daughter, Pooja Gajiwala, 17, often visit Carnival Cinemas to enjoy Hindi movies.

Pooja, who took Hindi at the A levels last year, said: "Watching Hindi movies has certainly helped me to pick up the language even faster, and learning the language is an important way for me to stay grounded to the Indian culture."

Unlike most other minority languages, which have seen a drop in the number of speakers, Hindi has grown in strength here over the years, said The Hindi Society.

There are an estimated 50,000 Hindi speakers in Singapore now, more than double the 20,000 from 15 years ago, said the society, which has been offering classes in the language since 1990.

The increase is in part due to the emergence of Indian migrant professionals since the late 1980s when the migration of foreign talent to Singapore began to be encouraged. Many of them speak Hindi, noted Associate Professor Rajesh Rai, a South Asia expert from the National University of Singapore, in 50 Years Of Indian Community In Singapore, a book published last year.

  • Facts and Figures

  • ORIGINS

    Hindi belongs to the Indo- European group of languages, which includes English.

    Hindi is an official language in India and is spoken mostly in the northern parts of the country. It evolved from Sanskrit, one of the world's oldest languages.

    Hindi is closely related to Urdu, which is spoken mostly in western India.

    They have the same origins, and differ only in how they are written - Urdu is written using the Perso-Arabic alphabets, while Hindi uses the Devanagari script.

    NUMBER OF SPEAKERS

    In Singapore, it is estimated that there are now 50,000 speakers of the language, up from 20,000 from 15 years ago, according to Mr Satyaprakash Tiwari, honorary secretary of The Hindi Society. Worldwide, Hindi is the third most spoken language with 650 million speakers. English has 1.5 billion and Mandarin, 1.1 billion speakers.

    WHERE TO LEARN IT

    The Hindi Society conducts language classes for pre-primary school children and adults. For inquiries, e-mail hindi@hindi-society.com or call 6293-3449.

The introduction of Hindi as a second language in schools here also led to a growth in the number of speakers. From 1965 to 1989, Hindi was not offered in schools. Most Indians took Tamil or Malay as their second language.

"We lost a generation of students who didn't know Hindi," said Mr Shriniwas Rai, a pioneer member of The Hindi Society and former Nominated Member of Parliament.

But in 1989, then education minister Dr Tony Tan announced that Hindi and four other non-Tamil Indian languages - Bengali, Gujarati, Punjabi and Urdu - would be offered to students as a second language in secondary school up to the O levels.

GREATER DIVERSITY

With the increasing prevalence of Hindi, it creates a richer experience for Indians locally and adds greater diversity to the culture of Indianness in Singapore.

ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR RAJESH RAI, a South Asia expert from the National University of Singapore.

Hindi was later offered at the A levels and then the Primary School Leaving Examination.

Today, nearly 8,000 students from primary school to junior college are taking it as their mother tongue, said The Hindi Society.

To be sure, Hindi is no minor language - it is the official language of India and the third most spoken language worldwide after English and Mandarin. An estimated 650 million people speak Hindi as their first or second language in 2015, according to the World Economic Forum.

In Singapore, Tamil remains the most widely spoken Indian language among the resident Indian population, with 37.7 per cent of them speaking it at home, according to the General Household Survey 2015. Hindi is, in comparison, a subset of the 12.4 per cent of the Indian population who speak languages besides English, Malay and Tamil.

While Tamil and Hindi are both Indian languages, they are starkly different in their sounds and scripts. Hindi is derived from Sanskrit, and written in the Devanagari script, unlike the Tamil script.

In Singapore, some street names and landmarks are rooted in Hindi. For instance, Dhoby Ghaut is derived from "Dhobi Ghat" in Hindi, which means washerman's place. It is nod to how "dhobis" - washermen - would go down the "ghats" (steps) to do their laundry using water flowing into what is now Stamford Canal.

In schools, debating arenas and cinemas, Hindi is more commonly heard nowadays. Hindi movies, for instance, can now be found at a number of cinemas, including Golden Village cinemas.

Meanwhile, this Saturday, The Hindi Society will be holding the finals of a debate competition for secondary school and junior college students, which was started in 2006.

Said Mrs Kavita Agrawal, a mother tongue specialist at the society: "This competition is organised to encourage students to express themselves better using Hindi."

Sania Shah, 14, a participant, said debating in Hindi has exposed her more to the language, "which has made me a sharper speaker".

Summing up, Prof Rai said: "With the increasing prevalence of Hindi, it creates a richer experience for Indians locally and adds greater diversity to the culture of Indianness in Singapore."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 18, 2017, with the headline 'Dhobi Ghat goes beyond Dhoby Ghaut '. Print Edition | Subscribe