Originating in north India, Hindi is one of the oldest languages in the world. It is spoken by almost 578 million people across the globe, making it the third most spoken language. It is India's primary language of entertainment and media and the most widely spoken and understood language in a country with 22 official languages. Bollywood films and songs have popularized Hindi worldwide, including in the United States. 

Many American universities and colleges teach Hindi, including the University of Michigan. In February, U-M was visited by Rakesh Ranjan, a senior lecturer and director of the Hindi-Urdu Program at Columbia University, to discuss the opportunities and challenges of teaching Hindi in the United States. 

“There is not a set curriculum or standards for teaching Hindi in the US,” says Ranjan. “Many professors don’t have a background in teaching. They are just native Hindi speakers.” 

Ranjan is an active member of the Hindi-Urdu teaching community in America. He has designed and supervised many projects at the national level. He is the project director for the STARTALK Hindi Audio-Visual project, which introduces 42 thematic modules based on real-life situations with varied linguistic, social, and cultural contents. The short clips offer samples of Hindi speech in formal and informal settings. 

“My interests include Hindi pedagogy, the South Asian diaspora, and the issues of heritage learners,” says Ranjan on his Columbia faculty page.

The term “heritage language learner” describes someone studying a language with proficiency or a cultural connection to that language. Heritage learners make up a majority of students learning Hindi in the US. 

“When Indians started coming to the US in the 60s and 70s, they didn’t expect their kids would want to learn Hindi,” says Ranjan. “The goal was to assimilate. But, when these kids got to college, they wanted to connect with where they came from, and learning Indian languages was a wonderful way to do that.” 

Ranjan received his PhD in linguistics from the University of Delhi. He began teaching as the Hindi language program director at the American Institute of Indian Studies (AIIS) in Varanasi, India. In 1999, Ranjan joined Emory University and developed their Hindi program. He has taught Hindi language, literature, and linguistics for more than twenty-five years in America.