Communicating in Hindi

April 7th, 2013

Country/Day:        India/62

Bikes Fixed:                  78

Bikes/Day Avg:               1.26

This is a post I’ve wanted to do for a while, and there have actually been a few requests for it. The requests have been along the lines of “Top Ten Hindi Phrases,” or “How to Survive in India.” This post is going to be very much an aggregate of those two; in essence, “How to Communicate with People in India so You Don’t Die.” Cool, right?

When I first arrived I was a little disappointed in myself for prepending that learning Hindi wasn’t necessary. I still feel that had I studied a bit harder before my arrival, I’d be having a better time. Volunteering at the shop, actually, is going swimmingly. Any command I haven’t learned the language for can be emulated by hand signals. The problem is that I can’t really get to know people. The shop manager and I can talk about where we’re from, what’s next in our careers, what our favorite food is, etc. But we can’t answer those questions that make us more transparent, like “What would you do with 2 billion dollars?” or “Why do you follow Hinduism?” or “What’s your favorite thing about your wife?” (for me it’s “Why aren’t you married yet?” — 23 and unmarried is appalling to everyone here).

Now, disclaimer. I’ve been trying on and off to learn Hindi. I think I mentioned it’s not a Latin language, and that certainly isn’t helping things. As well, without the regularity of a classroom structure (I never thought I’d say this) it’s hard to get things to stick. So on the one hand, it would definitely be beneficial to learn Hindi. On the other hand, not knowing Hindi makes this post very easy to write.  Through a natural selection of sorts, the words I use the most are the ones I remember… so to write a post about the most useful Hindi words, I just write the ones I remember.


The majority of the people who might find this post “useful” (instead of just interesting or entertaining) probably won’t be fluent Hindi speakers. Some Hindi sounds, like “bh-,” are difficult for Hindi-as-a-Second-Language folks to hear, and much more difficult to explain over the internet. So in many cases I have simplified.

For temporary travel in India, the pronunciations below should suffice. But know that it is not necessarily proper or complete.

– – –

(1) The hand wave. Wave your hand only from the wrist, keeping still everything from your wrist up (sort of like you’re doing a Jedi Mind Trick on someone). For bonus points, use only your pointer and middle fingers.

I wish I could say number one on the list was something about being accepting or keeping an open mind. But if you accepted everything someone gave you, you would get very fat. And if you gave everyone something they asked for, you would be very poor.

In India people want to feed you. It’s part of the culture. Most people who can afford food have a few extra pounds because they are well fed. If you stand in someone’s house longer than five minutes, they will offer you food (unless they knew you were coming, in which case, it’s waiting for you at the door). As soon as you clear your plate, regardless if it’s the first or the fifth, you are offered refills. Usually they go through every item on the table.


“No, thanks.”


“No, thanks.”


“No, thanks.”


“No, thanks.”


“No, thanks.”

(after a minute)



I never thought I would say this but it gets tiring saying “no” so much (then again, I’ve never had to say it so much). If you don’t believe me, then please, come to India and experience it for yourself… but have the hand wave ready.

In Minneapolis I see a few beggars a year. If I don’t have any change I can just ignore them and walk on by. In India, I see at least a few a day. They come up to you and wait for you to give them money. Until you give them an indication that you have or don’t have some they stick around. It’s not uncommon for them to grab your clothes or your arm, and yes, it’s as bothersome as it sounds.

Solution? The hand wave. They usually stick around for ten seconds or so just to be sure they read you right, but it’s better than having them follow you around for ten minutes.

On top of beggars there are the sellers. Any time you leave a transport hub (train station, airport) there are taxi drivers waiting just outside. “Taxi sir?” you will hear, three or for times before you make it to safety. Use the hand wave. Walking through an open market, you often have people coming up to you saying, “Do you know how much? Sir, I give you good price. Sir, please.” They don’t stop until you leave… or do the hand wave. Oh, and don’t think because you’re not at a transport hub or market people won’t try and sell you things. I was on the beach in Goa when someone came up to me and tried to sell me a shell necklace for $100 (by the time I walked away he had brought it down to $20, but in India, that’s still ridiculous).

The hand wave doesn’t always work. But I promise you’ll get tired of saying “no,” and having people follow you around until you reply. Use the hand wave.

– – –

(2) “Bus” – yes, pronounced like the vehicle your kids go to school in.

“Bus” is a Hindi expression for “enough,” the English equivalent of “when” (as in, “say when”). Remember how people offer you food until you explode? Well, sometimes rather than just passing you the food, they will serve it to you, too. Namely, if you order a dish in a restaurant to share, it’s not uncommon for the waiter to serve each of you before setting the dish down (this may be appalling to some of you health nuts, as yes, it is seriously unhygienic. But honestly, you have worse things to worry about here). You can say “bus” to keep him from overloading your plate.

If someone is pouring you a drink, you can say “bus” to get them to stop.

As an added bonus, this word seems to be one of those “in-the-know” words in the Hindi language, so people will be impressed with you (and often surprised) if you use it. Actually, one time a waiter became so distracted by the fact I knew the word that he continued filling my glass until it overflowed.

– – –

(3) “Pani ki bottle” – pronounced “pan-ee key bottle.”

This Hindi phrase means “bottled water” (“pani” is the word for “water”). Prabhat warns me there’s room for interpretation and you might just get a used bottle filled with water. If you’re worried about that, “mineral water” might also be understood. However, I haven’t had any problems (you can check the seal on the bottle to be sure).

Oh, in case you missed it, the tap water here is no good. So, pani ki bottle, please (or “pani ubalna” — boiled water — if you’re staying with a host). Side note — MRP is usually around RS 15/liter ($0.30), but restaurants may charge as much as Rs 50.

– – –

(4) “Kitne” – pronounced “kit-nay.”

This is the Hindi word for “How many?/How much?” You need to be able to use this word as well as understand it. For instance, at a restaurant you might order chai.If you’re sitting with someone else, the waiter will then ask, “Kitne?” Most anyone selling something knows English numbers up to ten. If you really want to learn the Hindi numbers you can, but worst case you just hold up your fingers.

If you’re looking at buying something and want to now how much it is, you can hold it up to the shop owner and say, “Kitne?”

– – –

(5) “Baya” – pronounced “buy-ah.”

This is the Hindi word (polite) for “sir.” It actually means “big brother,” but it is used to refer to any male you are trying to get the attention of. As the culture dictates, the vast majority of your waiters and other customer-service personnel will be male, and you will probably want to get their attention at some point, so it’s essential you know how!

If you do happen across a waitress at some point, you can use “didi,” which means “big sister.” It is a bit uncommon though, so while she’ll understand you, she might look at you funny.

– – –

(6) The OK sign and the words “Okay, no problem.” Made by touching the ends of your thumb and pointer finger, and raising the remaining three fingers out of the way. The words are pronounced as in English; most people understand them.

When I first came to India I would use thumbs-up a lot. Very few people understand it, however. The OK sign is much more widespread. In addition, most people understand the phrase “No problem.”

– – –

(7) “Ek minute.”

“Ek” is Hindi for “one.” I found it really ironic that this phrase is half Hindi, half English. I tried saying it all Hindi or all English, but every time I was corrected to “ek minute.” Anyways, nobody wants to learn how to pronounce the Hindi word for “minute.” So if you’re in the middle of something and somebody wants your attention, just say “ek minute.”

– – –

(8) Talk to your host!

I cannot stress enough how much you learn to communicate simply by talking to people who speak decent English. I knew some Hindi words when I came, but I have used almost exclusively those above, which I learned from the people here.

For instance, I had “left” and “right” memorized in case I had to take a taxi somewhere; but all taxi drivers know those words. On the other hand, I didn’t know I’d be using “bus” so much, which had to be explained to me.

I was talking to Ambika about buying a flash drive to get my photos home (recall my computer crashed and I am on a borrowed one for the time being). “A what?” she said.

“You know, a flash drive. Like, a memory stick. You put it in your computer and it stores data.”

“Oh! You mean a pen drive.”

So when I went to buy a “flash drive” and the Hindi-speaking store employee looked at me confusedly, I knew to ask instead for a pen drive. Problem solved. I would never have learned that by sitting around the States memorizing Hindi words.

– – –

(9) Samjhe Nahin – pronounced “Sam-jay na-heen”

Hindi for “I don’t understand.” If you don’t understand it’s usually pretty obvious, which is why this is at the bottom of the post. But every now and then you get the persistent people who demand a response (okay, pretty often, actually — it’s pretty cultural to be insistent here). In this case, it works even better if you say it with a bad accent.


The majority of the people who might find this post “useful” (instead of just interesting or entertaining) probably won’t be fluent Hindi speakers. Some Hindi sounds, like “bh-,” are difficult for Hindi-as-a-Second-Language folks to hear, and much more difficult to explain over the internet. So in many cases I have simplified

For temporary travel in India, these pronunciations should suffice. But know that they are not necessarily proper or complete.

5 thoughts on “Communicating in Hindi

  1. Marilyn says:

    This is a fascinating post, with lots of insight into the Indian culture. You are becoming a great writer.

  2. Grandma says:

    Interesting – I can just see you ‘talking” Hindi!!
    I have interesting climbing grandsons – they all like to climb mountains. You on Mt. Kanchenjunka, Ethan recently climbed Mt. Kenya and Caleb in the past year Pikes and Longs Peaks in Co and Sharp Top in VA.
    I rode up Pikes Peak once, does that count??

  3. Kailash Singh says:

    Sabaje Nahim – pronounced “Sub-aaj-ay Na-heen.

    Correct: Samjhe Nahin – pronounced “Sam-Jhe Na-heen

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