Volume VII - 2002-03

Autonomous Learning through Cinema: One Learner 's Memories
    by Connie Haham

     Connie Haham teaches students aged 4 to 79 in Paris in the spring.Each summer she teaches at Texas Intensive English Program in Austin. Falls,she works towards a Master 's at the University of Texas. She has written a yet unpublished book: Enchantment of the Mind: Manmohan Desai's Films.

The Power of Cinema as a Learning Tool

     Much has been written about cinema as a teaching resource.Very little seems to have been written about cinema and autonomous learning.Yet the world is probably full of people who,independently,learn much language through the movies. And why not? Good films offer excellent motivation. At best, stories on screen draw people in.Well-written dialogue is spoken by actors whose body language enhances the power of their voices,and identification and meaning flow back and forth between the spectators and the light projected on the screen.Often, for two spell-binding hours, the real world slips away as the viewer partially takes up the life with the characters on screen. Cinema, because of its power,can increase desire for the language used in its dialogues. All the while, it offers extensive and intensive listening opportunities for avid film-goers.

Three Rewards after a Long Quest

     Below is the story of this learner's journey into a new language thanks to cinema. It is my 20-odd year quest for some sort of mastery of Hindi, for the most part as an autonomous learner.Cinema has been both the reason for my studying the language and also the means by which I have studied. In exchange for my years of effort, I have learned a great deal of Hindi, and I have had the pleasure of countless hours of movie viewing. These would have been sufficient rewards for my time.However, the long, slow and often painful process has offered a third reward that has proved invaluable to me as an EFL/ESL teacher, namely, an excellent insight into what is involved in being a learner.

1979: Discovery

     It began in 1979, when I discovered Hindi cinema by chance in a nearby local cinema,which,though unadvertised, was already well-known to the North African and Indian communities of Paris. For me,it was fascination at first sight. Amar Akbar Anthony left me singing and dancing and wanting to see much more Hindi popular cinema.I did; I returned week after week, often for double features. But linguistically my new passion was dissatisfying. The subtitling of the films (done in Cairo in French and Arabic) was of poor quality and badly synchronized. Worse, I sat through many charming movies with no subtitling whatsoever. It was a combination, then, of curiosity and frustration that drove me to consult the Asian language section of the well-furnished University of Texas library upon arriving in Austin a couple of months later.

Getting Some Basic Answers about the Language

     Hindi, I already knew thanks to linguist Mario Pei, is an Indo-European language. I had heard recognizable words that served as confirmation ––“nahin ” (no),“main ”(I),”“tum ” (you),“teen ” (three), etc. Still, I had no idea if the language was written from right to left or left to right or how the grammar might work. In the library I found Outline of Hindi Grammar (McGregor,1972), a conveniently sized, simply laid-out book. My first thought was to glance through in search of answers to my most immediate questions concerning the language and then to return to movie-viewing. It occurred to me, though,that devoting time studying the first two chapters and doing the included exercises would offer greater insight.Hindi, I thus learned, is written from left to right, the verb tends to be at the end of the sentence, and various forms of “to be ” are omnipresent. Inevitably, more questions arose; the book seemed to provide ready answers. The Devanagari script, also used in Sanskrit, is phonetic. Excellent! I immediately had more positive feelings. I had been considering studying Hebrew or Arabic, but the thought of trying to guess the pronunciation of words with missing vowels was off-putting.The bad news about Hindi: the vocabulary is huge and often hard to remember; cognates to European languages are present but rare. Worse, nouns all have genders, which, for the most part, are not conveniently obvious from the endings as they are in Spanish or Italian. Even my years of fighting with French genders seemed, in comparison, like a minor disagreement; the real battle would come from trying to commit to memory genders that lacked the familiar “le-la,un-une ” clues I was accustomed to. More daunting,still,was the notion of gender for verbs. How could one 's brain possibly perform the mental gymnastics necessary to go from masculine to feminine in nouns, verbs and adjectives? I replaced the book on the shelf, but two days later, a nagging, cinema-induced curiosity won (that tall actor was so very handsome!). I relented and made copies of the first 10 chapters before returning to France, just in case I should need them as a reference at some point.

Hooked on Hindi

     In fact, I did much more than glance at the self-teach book; I took up a thirty-minute-a-day ritual of copying sentences and doing the end-of-the-chapter translations. And every Saturday as I sat through another three-hour Bombay production (or the same movie for the third or fourth time), I would understand a few more words or phrases. I did not know the statement “chunking ” at the time, but I was obviously picking up chunks of language: “Kyaa huaa?” (What happened?), “Khoon ke badle khoon ” (an eye for an eye, literally blood in exchange for blood), “koi baat nahin ” (no matter).

From Textbook to Movie Brochures to Dictionary Work

     The McGregor book was good for basic grammar but could hardly give me the context I longed for. Fortunately, the manager at Avron Palace did not mind passing on the promotional brochures that he received with the movie reels. These were culturally fascinating. Along with action-filled pictures, there was a short plot summary in English, Hindi and Urdu, and the song lyrics in both Hindi and Urdu scripts. These became my principle source of written learning materials. But I needed audio material as well. As luck would have it, in the immigrant parts of Paris, Indian shops were springing up, selling basmati rice, spices and audiocassettes of film songs and even film dialogues! Perfect. I had the songs in their written and their audio versions. I only needed an adequate dictionary for this sort of vocabulary. “Love,” “longing ” and " “revenge ” were not grammar book vocabulary. On a trip to London, I found the small, convenient Shorter Hindi English Dictionary (1977). It helped immensely. Interestingly, certain sections of the dictionary attracted me while others repulsed me. Words beginning with “u ”, for example, were much too numerous,too similar,too hard to pronounce,and too unpleasing to the ear. Under the letter “m,” on the other hand, I found ever so many words that lilted on the tongue and quickly stuck in my memory (“mamlaa ” --matter,“mohabbat ” --love).

The Pleasures of a Powerful Dictionary

     A remaining frustration came from the fact that much of the song lyric vocabulary was not in the dictionary. The key seemed to me to be hinted at in McGregor 's vocabulary lists, which marked words from Arabic or Persian with a cross. The songs seemed to have an inordinate number of words of these origins. I spent time in Asian bookshops and happened upon the sole copy of a very substantial dictionary that was expensive and daunting but also very exciting. Little did I realize at the time that buying Platts' Urdu Classical Hindi and English Dictionary would be an investment that would pay off linguistically for years and years to come. The words from all the songs seemed to be there. I also spent hours simply reading the dictionary and looking for connections, connections between words, first of all (e.g.,'“safar,”-journey,“musaafir ” --traveler) and then, connections between words and cultural concepts. “Izzat ” was one such weighty word..“Might, power, grandeur, glory, honour, dignity, respect ” is the first line of a definition that goes on for 23 lines in Platts. No wonder I had heard it so often in the movies.

The Need for Urdu

     As exciting as Platts' Dictionary was, it posed a huge challenge .In order to use it, I had to be able to read Urdu. I began Hindi delighted by its phonetic alphabet,only to find myself pulled into the mysteries of Arabic sounds and script. From the clarity of a phonetic alphabet, I moved into a system that not only lacked many vowels,but which also had multiple spellings for the same sound. A word beginning with '“z ”, for instance,could be found under any of four separate letters in the separate sections of the dictionary.I spent my evenings now not only with the McGregor grammar book,the song lyrics and audiocassettes of dialogues, but also laboriously copying Arabic letters. Reading the songs in Urdu would always be much too slow, but knowing the alphabet well was essential in order to maneuver around the dictionary.

A Language Partner

     I attempted to take “dictations ” from the audiocassettes I had, but quickly found myself bogged down. It seemed time to enlist the help of a person, not a book.Fortunately, someone knew someone who knew someone –a young Indian woman who had recently arrived in Paris and who was happy to exchange an hour of Hindi per week for an hour of French. Unfortunately, Devika, who was Bengali, did not share my eager enthusiasm for Hindi movies, which she considered generally low-brow and often obnoxious. However, even she admitted to enjoying the 1975 blockbuster Sholay ; hence,helping me with the song “Yeh Dosti ” (This Friendship) from the film was acceptable to her.Living in Paris, Devika 's French quickly raced ahead of my paltry Hindi, and our lessons petered out after eight to ten hours. Still, it was wonderful to have been able to use the language for communication as well as for movie-viewing.

Driven to Make Use of Each Spare Minute

     A major additional motivation for continued language learning came from the writing I was doing about the movies for French and for Indian magazines. For the French publications I did little more than attempt to generate some interest in Hindi cinema, which was almost unknown in Paris,in spite of Paris' status as the movie-viewing capital of the world. For Indian publications, I was examining aspects of the cinema that supposed more of a grasp of Indian culture and the Hindi language .It was a bit embarrassing to receive pay for an article when my Hindi was so limited.I definitely needed to progress, but time was a factor; I was teaching English part-time and had a young family. Fortunately, it was possible to combine cooking and study .My
kitchen wall was soon covered with bits of paper full of vocabulary words I had heard on cassette and needed Arabic sounds and script. From the clarity of a phonetic alphabet ,I moved into a system that not only lacked many vowels,but which also had multiple spellings for the same sound. A word beginning with '“z ”, for instance, could be found under any of four separate letters in the separate sections of the dictionary. I spent my evenings now not only with the McGregor grammar book, the song lyrics and audiocassettes of dialogues, but also laboriously copying Arabic letters.Reading the songs in Urdu would always be much too slow, but to look up after the meal.

Off to Bombay

     My Hindi movie fascination led to another friendship with a young Indian-born woman who heartily encouraged me in my writing on Indian cinema, to the point that I undertook a book on a film director I was particularly interested in. In January 1984, I headed to Bombay for a month of research on Manmohan Desai and his films. There I saw at least 15 unsubtitled Hindi movies in a month, an excellent intensive language session.I also returned to Paris with handfuls of treasures in the form of cheap and flimsy movie booklets bought from sidewalk vendors on Grant Road.Each retold a film in the simplest language and gave highlights of dialogues, all in poorly spelled Hindi. No matter. For years afterwards I read and reread these film industry spin-offs, reliving the movies in yet another way.

Renewed Interest Thanks to University Studies

     The early nineties were a time when the Bombay film industry seemed to be treading water.I lost interest to a great degree. Still, I tried to keep the Hindi I had acquired by watching an occasional video or re-listening to film dialogues. Then in 1999, I had an opportunity to return to university to study. I sat in on a third-year Hindi class and found my old interest renewed. Suddenly, rather than studying the language to watch the movies, I began watching the movies to study the language. I wanted to be able to sit down and write out the dialogues that had intrigued me years earlier. This had been one of my first linguistic goals, and yet I could still hear only a few sentences in full. I had read an article in which Krashen (1996) recommended
something called “narrow listening.” I decided to test his theory by listening to Ramesh Sippy 's Shakti 150-200 times over a six-month period. Krashen was right. Each time I listened, I heard new words or caught new bits of grammar. And, amazingly, my interest did not falter. The film 's powerful father-son conflict, well-drawn characters, and metaphor-filled dialogues came alive thanks to the delivery of the actors; Amitabh Bachchan and the rest of the cast made me want to speak the language.

Reluctant Abandoning of Autonomy

      Finally,in the Fall 2001, I signed up for a graduate course in Hindi; for the first time I was an '“official ” student of the language. It was a struggle to accept a teacher-made agenda after having had so much freedom of choice in materials, goals and timetables up to that point. I must admit, though,that being forced to spend eight to ten hours a week for three and a half months
on mind-bending work did wonders for my Hindi. No longer could I ignore,for example, the passive form as simply “too much trouble to learn ” or be as sloppy in my spelling as the writers of the film booklets. Most excitingly, though, I learned to use a Hindi font on the computer and gave up scratching out words in my ugly handwriting.

“What For?!”

     Archana, my second language exchange friend, has asked insistently in the last year, “But why do you need Hindi? You 're here in Paris or in Austin, not in Bombay. Yet you 've done all this work.What for?!” And I always answer, “To savor the movies.” I can now understand 75--80%of most films. And at last I can sit down and take dictation from the dialogues of a film, just as I had first wanted to do back in 1979-80. A fuller answer to the question of “What for?” would have to be that all these years of study have also made me a better teacher. Experiencing both joys and frustrations as I have struggled to learn has offered invaluable first hand knowledge of the steps by which learning occurs and has left me with many helpful tips to share with my students .I have been able to empathize as they have felt indignant,say, at English prepositions or when they have been tempted to chastise themselves for forgetting the preceding week's vocabulary, and, to some extent, I have been able to encourage them towards greater autonomy based on passions of their own.


Chaturvedi, Mahendra and Tiwari,Dr.Bholanath.(1977).Shorter Hindi English Dictionary.National Publishing House.

Krashen,Stephen D.(1996)The Case for Narrow Listening System .Vol.24,1,p.97-100.

McGregor,R.S.(1972)Outline of Hindi Grammar .Oxford University Press.

Pei,Mario.(1965)The Story of Language .Mentor Books.

Platts,John T.(1974)A Dictionary of Urdu,Classical Hindi and English .Oxford University Press.

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