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“Sahth, sarth and satr?” I asked. “Don’t those all sound very similar?”

“Oh yes,” Nisha replied. “Sometimes I can’t tell sahth and sarth apart. When people speak quickly you don’t know the difference.”

“But doesn’t that confuse people with numbers? You can’t make seven and sixty sound exactly the same. What if I asked how much something was and you said sixty but I thought seven – I might get really excited by how cheap it was!”

Nisha just laughed as she continued to sort mint leaves from their stalk. I was sitting on the counter and she on her stool – we were both drinking our usual cups of chai and she was (attempting) to teach me how to count.

We’d gotten into a good pattern with our learning. She would teach me a few Hindi words a day and I would practice reading with her. It was a good trade. We’d spent the previous part of the morning trying to go over why certain words in English needed an E on the end.

“It sounds like ‘bloo’.” I said.

“But why is there an E? Why isn’t it B L U?”

“I don’t know. It just isn’t”

“How would I know that that word doesn’t sound like bloo-ee?”

I thought about it for a moment. I really am a terrible reading teacher. I’ve gained a new-found respect for primary school educators– how can you possibly explain the English language when it doesn’t make logical sense?

I’d started with packaging. That was the easiest place to find simple words. On this particular day we were reading the label on a box of flour, and the company’s name was ‘Blue Bird’. Nisha knew all the letters from the beginning, so that had made the task easier. But now we just had to try and learn what each one sounded like in the context of a word.

I looked at ‘bird’. Nisha was sounding it out, “Buh…. Ih… rrrr… duh… Byrrduh…Beard…. Bird?”

“yes!” I said.

“yes?” She smiled at me and then looked at Phoebe. She cupped Phoebe’s face in her hands. “Phoebe, that says bird. You can’t tell because you’re a dog.”

We both laughed. Poor Phoebe was used to staring at us – she sat there hoping a morsel of food would come her way, but instead she had to watch as we repeated words over and over again.

But then it had been my turn. And just as quickly as I had been annoyed with how silly English writing was I soon turned on Hindi.

In English, our multiples of ten are simple. Twenty, thirty, fourty, fifty, sixty… It made sense. But in Hindi? Seven and sixty sounded practically the same, but six and sixty don’t even start with the same letter. Why was two ‘do’ and twenty ‘bees’? Why is eight ‘ought’ and eighty ‘asi’? My mind swam with numbers. I just tried reciting.

“Ek, do, teen, char, panch,” I said over and over, counting to five. Nisha chuckled at my pronunciation. Hindi words don’t have hard endings – so while I might say teen with an emphasis on the N, in Hindi it barely registers. At least my pronunciation gives any Hindi speaker listening a good laugh.

And slowly but surely, we’re both coming along. While I can’t pronounce the Hindi words and Nisha can’t understand why English isn’t logical (we had the most trouble with the word ‘onion’. Can anyone explain to me why it is spelled that way?) it’s the small progress that counts. And that’s all anyone can hope for. At least we both have each other to laugh a little bit along the way towards bettering ourselves one day at a time.

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