The language begins with a straight line on a clean whiteboard. Nihal Usmani starts the first lesson of ‘learning Urdu through Hindi’ in a calm, modest voice: “This is Alif, the first letter.” Even though the classroom is empty, his voice extends beyond the camera lens into a corner of YouTube, to nearly a million viewers. His unique approach of using Hindi to discover Urdu separates him from a crowd of language teachers online and has ensured him a loyal audience. He assures that ‘Alif’ is present in Hindi as well. With another swift stroke of his pen, he draws a line over the ‘alif,’ turning it into the Hindi marker that makes the ‘a’ sound.
“Now you recognise it, right? This is the Hindi sound for ‘a.’”
Alphabet by alphabet, Usmani proceeds to uncover a language by means of another. This seamless shift between Hindi and Urdu is one of the foremost reasons for Usmani’s popularity on YouTube. His viewers comprise Indians, who want to master foreign languages, but may not have the hold over English that is required in urban India. Indeed, Usmani chose Hindi and other vernacular languages as the medium precisely because they have long been deprived of the ‘normative’ status in pedagogy. Be it Urdu through Bangla or French through Hindi, Nihal’s channel contains many such permutations and combinations in which he bridges the distance between two regional languages by switching tongues with enviable ease.
Usmani got the idea for using one language to explain the other in the late 1950s, when he tuned into a radio service from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) which taught Bangla through Urdu. “I really liked this style of teaching languages, so I listened to it regularly, and in one month I could speak Bengali,” he says. Beginning his career as a translator working in Urdu, he arranged a transfer to Delhi simply so he could cross paths with more languages. “In Delhi, a lot of embassies conducted their language classes, so I enrolled in those, sometimes in Japanese embassy, or the Iranian, or Bulgarian, and so on. In these places, I learned a lot of languages and teaching techniques I used later.”
However, it was the bond between Hindi, Urdu and a few other regional languages that proved pivotal for Nihal Usmani’s breakthrough. “Using Hindi and Urdu not only cuts through the majority of the subcontinent’s population, but goes against assuming English as the native language, and language lessons don’t traditionally use our regional languages. Just as my videos reached India’s Hindi speaking people, I got requests from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and other countries to use Urdu to explore the Hindi language.” This osmosis of languages is well reflected by his subscriber base of almost three lakh people on YouTube, who are reaping the benefits of a long-delayed attention to the vernacular in language teaching.
“For example, the Punjabi population in rural Pakistan wants to learn the Gurmukhi script, but has no resources except the Urdu language, which is the norm there.”
These unusual combinations of linguistic and geopolitical nuances are not uncommon in Usmani’s students. In such circumstances, Usmani enables learners by using local languages at his disposal rather than conforming to the ‘universal’ anglophone approaches that were used for a European audience. His expertise is not limited to Indian languages either — he uses Hindi or Urdu to help many Indian immigrants in European countries learn German or French, a move that helps them significantly to settle down in foreign countries.
“My videos that teach French using Hindi, for example, are viewed more in Europe by Indian or Pakistani immigrants than in India itself, which is one of the interesting results of online teaching.”
Usmani is well aware of the advantages of YouTube, so much so that he opted for an early retirement just to follow his passion for teaching languages online. The platform is endearingly contrasted by his minimalist methods — the printed A4 sheets, ball-point pens, unedited voice-overs, but his channel has eventually blossomed into a popular outlet for learners. The platform has allowed him to cover sixty languages and interact almost daily with his many followers. “At first, I used to be happy with ten views, and I couldn’t have imagined a million,” says Usmani. Indeed, the wide demographic arc of his audience would certainly not have emerged if not for the transition to teaching online. “The leisure to practise, repeat lessons, anywhere from the world, anytime they wish, is something very liberating for the students.”
Does he think of the languages south of the country? Adhering to the pan-Indian frame of learning, Nihal progressed beyond North Indian languages by refocusing on Kannada, Tamil and Telugu, as they are seeing growing demand. “I’ve made some videos on Kannada and Telugu, especially those where I explore Urdu through Kannada catering to the Kannada learners. These have gathered almost a million viewers.” Usmani intends to create an extensive series on Malayalam by accessing resources in Kerala. “I plan to travel there and gather whatever I can to help me start a series in Malayalam, as well as the four other major South Indian languages.”
As a native of Lucknow, Nihal credits the city famous for its tehzeeb (etiquette) and multicultural fabric in encouraging a love of languages in him, especially Urdu, which he claims everyone tries to speak. “Even though it is discouraged by the Government, people in Lucknow have always basked in each other’s languages. The Bengalis foster Bangla, the Sindhis have their own schools and so on, but they all aim to retain some Urdu of Lucknow,” he informs. When asked whether the recent bouts of communal tension across religious lines in Uttar Pradesh and North India threaten this classical Lucknow atmosphere, he reveals that his optimism has not waned. “There has always been a small minority of purists, who frown over mixing languages and they are more visible now, thanks to the approval given by those in power. But I’m not worried that it will affect our multilingualism.”
He is especially hopeful of the youth among his viewers, who he thinks are motivated to uphold the multiculturalist ethos by accessing each other’s cultures. “The students are not narrow-minded and are eager to learn about other cultures. In the Urdu classes I have run, students were mostly non-Muslim, and the number of Urdu speakers among other communities has risen too.” Usmani himself tries enabling these cross-cultural curiosities through his “Learning Urdu through Poetry” series, in which he uses Ghalib, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and other Urdu poets to guide his viewers towards cultivating the quintessential Urdu pronunciation. With each passing day, the language man of Lucknow continues to clear paths for strangers to walk into languages.
(The author is a writing tutor with Ashoka University)