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Language/nich pair with best ROI?
Thread poster: MoeJohnson
MoeJohnson
United States
Aug 23, 2015

Hello,

I'm a current college student who is seriously thinking of getting into translation. The thing is, I'm still a monolingual so I'm in the process of picking the language I will study for the next 2+ years before teaching english in the country of choice to get good enough at it to become a translator.

My question is this, which language and nich, when paired with english, gives you the best ROI?

I'm thinking it would be a country with high labor costs, and one with few people who are native english speakers, I'm provisionally signed up for Korean, and I'm not so sure if thats the best choice, and I have no idea what carving out a niche for yourself entails. Or if its even possible to predict which languages/niches will pay most.

I'm also interested in how location independent translators can be, and if you guys think getting into translation is even worth it this late (college junior) in the game. I'll be graduating with a degree in English and a minor in whichever language I choose, if that matters.

My perhaps unrealistic goal is to eventually get 100k per year working ~50 hrs a week while being location independent by age 30 (ten years from now).


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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 21:18
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
A language you love and are passionately interested in, and ditto subject specialization Aug 24, 2015

Hello MoeJohnson, and welcome!

Just a few thoughts:

1. Why would you choose Korean?

I know absolutely nothing about the Korean market, but my first thought is that it is a totally different language and culture from yours and will take a long time to learn.

2. Forget the ROI thing. Learning a language is an ongoing process that takes a lifetime, although OK, you can begin translating after a few years of intensive study.

There are so many factors to consider other than money. Many translators on this site have arranged their whole lives around learning a language. It is not too late for you - I was 27 before I clould speak more than a handful of words in Danish, my main source language, which became my language of habitual usage. Admittedly, it helped that I grew up with languages and translation and had some training in French and German beforehand. But I have never lived in French or German-speaking countries, and have not kept those languages up.

I make a reasonably good living in a country where labour costs are high, but 'everyone can English' - some a lot better than others!

The language chose me, as I married a Dane and ended up living in Copenhagen, and later a small town in Jutland.

Lots of colleagues will tell you similar stories.
__________________________

3. Subject specialization is almost more important than which language you choose.
There is no car industry in Denmark, but medicine and pharmacy are important fields, and those fit with my interests too.

The more widespread your languages are, the more competition there will be from others. That means specializing is vital. In the more unusual language pairs, you sometimes have to be able to take on more subject areas, just to be able to find enough work.

So what subject area(s) would you like to specialize in, and which country or countries would you like to live in to study it/them?

Do you have any hobbies or aversions?
How would your choice of location affect them, assuming that sooner or later you will have a family and put down roots somewhere?
___________________

Technically, translations fly over the Internet and you can live where you like and work for clients all over the world.

In practice you need to keep in close contact with your source and target languages. English is everywhere, so you devote time each week to reading and listening with your linguist's ears, and visit the US in your case as often as you can.

I find it an enormous advantage to live immersed in my source language, as it is not nearly so widespread round the world. But if you work at it, you can probably keep in touch with any language more or less.

____________________

Do you like working HARD for your terminology? (And this may affect your ROI)

My language pair is comparatively easy, because there are excellent lexicographers and researchers in Denmark, and they have been supported in compiling dictionaries and resources for translators. This is not the case with less wealthy countries and their languages.
There is almost too much available in English - you have to make choices.

With other language pairs you sometimes almost have to write the dictionaries as you go along, and finding terminology is hard work.
Some people actually like that side of the job, and if there are funds, then you can also make a good living that way.
There is money in the EU for some of the 'smaller' languages, and there could be good niches there.

___________________

While good, established translators can live very happily on translating, it IS hard work and calls for a lot of training. It is not an easy profession to start up in, so it takes a long while to get there.
It is NOT a means of making big money as a rule.

If you really want to do it for its own sake, then best of luck.

But if you are primarily interested in ROI in economic terms, you should probably look for a different profession.


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Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 20:18
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
Are you sure this is what you want? Aug 24, 2015

MoeJohnson wrote:
My perhaps unrealistic goal is to eventually get 100k per year working ~50 hrs a week while being location independent by age 30 (ten years from now).

Speaking as somebody who comes to translation from another industry, I think you're looking at the wrong profession. There are plenty of other careers that will allow to make 100k and more if you invest 10 years of hard work in them.

In translation I'm not so sure that would happen. There are no doubt people who earn 100k, but my gut sense is that you're looking at a small number clustered at one end of the pay continuum. In some other professions you'd have a far higher probability of being on 100k or more within 4-5 years of graduating.

It also seems likely to me that the most financially successful translators have other skills that distinguish them from the tens of millions of other people who already have linguistic abilities.

If all you do is translation in college and thereafter, you'll struggle to pick up those "non-translation" skills and be competitive with other people who have done something in addition to translation. In my case, for example, there are 128 million people who speak better Japanese than me: I need to bring something more to the table than the language.

From my perspective, I find it rather odd that a self-confessed monoglot is so focused on building a career in languages. How do you know that you are suited to such work? By the time I was in my teens I had exposure to three languages, two of which were actively spoken in the community.

I freely admit that I have never been much of a linguist and I don't particularly like languages - I see them as complex and only sporadically interesting tools - but at least I was familiar with them from childhood. And by the time I was making the choices you're now facing, I already spoke languages other than English so it wasn't unknown territory.

I admire the fact that you're working on a life plan, but you're making a big bet on something of which you have neither knowledge or experience. That's a high-risk strategy. Can you not leverage your existing passions or skills?

Regards
Dan


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 04:18
Chinese to English
Agree with everything above Aug 24, 2015

1) The freelance translator life is a weird, solitary life. It sounds like you're too young to know if you can really enjoy that lifestyle for years on end, so I wouldn't want to set anything in stone at this stage.

2) 100k is definitely ambitious. Doable, but ambitious.

Having said that... If you do know that this is what you want, then you're asking the right questions.

It doesn't really matter what language you choose. There is well-paid work available in almost every conceivable pair, no matter what level of development the source language country is at. If you choose a pair with a lot of competition, like Spanish or French, you will have to specialise more tightly to give yourself a good market edge. If you choose a pair with less, like Korean, you will probably find it easier to do well as a generalist.

The key question is: which language can you learn the most easily? Asian languages really are harder. You have to fight through the different alphabets, sometimes some difficult pronunciation, and a more alien culture. There are more resources out there to help you with European languages. And it's often easier to go and live in Europe than it is in Asia. Teaching English in Asia is common, but it's not actually a very good way to learn the local language.

So, without knowing anything about you and your character, the answer has to be that European languages are your best option. So you'll have to specialise, and you should specialise in law because that's always well-paid.

So the answers to your questions are pretty easy: to achieve what you say you want, you should major in law and minor in French, Spanish or German. Find a way to spend a couple of years in the relevant country, immersing yourself (practicing writing and speaking as much as possible - the best way to improve your reading is to practice writing). Then market yourself skilfully. And as you say, you can be free to locate yourself anywhere in the world.


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Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 01:48
Member (2006)
English to Hindi
+ ...
I don't think it can be done Aug 24, 2015

At your age (I am assuming that you are at least 18) it would be difficult to learn a language from scratch, if at all you manage to learn it. To acquire sufficient proficiency to be able to translate complex texts from it to English, you will need almost complete immersion in the language for 10 to 15 years.

Since you plan to earn 100k a year, you will be functioning at the cutting of your language pair and handling very complex texts. You can't expect to learn a new language to that level of proficiency in a year or two. As Dan rightly mentions, to become a proficient translator you should already be speaking the languages in your childhood.

That is why I don't think it is doable.

But you could still earn 100k in a linguistic profession and eventually make a gradual move into translation over a few decades. And that profession is editing, proofing, and copy-writing in English. English has already become a global language and is used by many people for whom it is a second language. These people very often get native speakers of English to polish up their writings and translations to native standards, and there is a vast market out these for people who have native-level skills in English. You could start off with this, and this can be done from anywhere in the globe and you could locate yourself in a place where the language you want to learn is spoken and gradually soak it in over several years.

Regarding which language can yield best ROI, I would say go for a language that is likely to dominate the economic world in the coming years. From this point of view, the European languages are spent forces, except may be German. The languages of the future are Chinese, Hindi, Spanish (the latin american and US versions), Arabic, and African languages.

Of these, Hindi would be the easiest for you to learn. It is a language belonging to the same linguistic group as English - Indo-European. A further advantage is, there are many Hindi speakers in the US and many US schools and colleges teach Hindi at college level, so you can learn Hindi even while being in the US. You can of course also move to India, which is one of the happening places in the current economic scenario, and is likely to be that way for the foreseeable future. Another advantage is, English is widely understood in urban areas in India, and you will feel at home here with your knowledge of English. Of course you will face a severe culture shock in the beginning, but that is true of any new linguistic area you would move into.

The same can be said for Chinese, but Chinese, most people say, is a difficult language to learn for foreigners.


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Maria S. Loose, LL.M.  Identity Verified
Belgium
Local time: 21:18
German to English
+ ...
Become a lawyer-linguist Aug 24, 2015

I would also advise you to study for a law degree while you are young and even to get the necessary qualifications to practice as a lawyer. Then you can still learn one or two source languages later in your life. When going to law school take some courses on the civil law system, which is the big family of legal systems coexisting with common law, the Anglo-American legal system. Once you have these legal systems under your belt you can work abroad in American law firms and learn languages like French, Spanish or German, while you are working. These languages are easier to learn for native speakers of English than Asian or African languages. With these qualifications you have two career options: Exercising a legal profession or going into translation. If you move into translation you could work as a lawyer-linguist which is a lawyer who specializes in translating highly complex legal texts or in editing texts pre-translated by generalist translators.

As far as learning a source language as an adult is concerned, I do not share Bala's or Dan's points of view. If you focus on specialized translations, e.g. in law or finance, it's easy to learn a Germanic or Romance source language later on in your life if your native language is English. I learned French at the age of 20 and Italian, Spanish and Dutch much later and I can translate any legal text from these languages into my target languages, because I specialize in law and finance and not in marketing or literature. The legal systems of Spanish speaking countries are very similar to the French legal system, which I studied at University.

I am telling you this because I honestly regret that I concentrated on studying languages while I was young (I'm almost 60 now) and did not study law or economics right away. I only went to law school at the age of 45 and would have had a much more fulfilling and interesting career as a specialized translator or lawyer had I done that earlier in my life.



[Edited at 2015-08-25 12:42 GMT]

[Edited at 2015-08-25 12:57 GMT]

[Edited at 2015-08-25 12:58 GMT]


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Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 20:18
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
20 isn't too late Aug 24, 2015

Maria S. Loose, LL.M. wrote:
I do not share Bala's or Dan's points of view. If you focus on specialized translations, e.g. in law or finance, it's easy to learn a Germanic or Romanic source language later on in your life if your native language is English

Just to clarify, I agree with you that it's not too late to learn a language at 20 - that was the age I was learning Japanese.

It just seems odd for somebody without any foreign language experience for the first 20 years of his life to decide that he wants to build his life around foreign languages.

It's a bit like somebody who has never studied chemistry suddenly deciding at 20 that they want to go ahead make their livelihood as a chemist.

Dan


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Jeff Henson  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 21:18
Member (2015)
French to English
Hindi easier than Spanish ? Seriously ? Aug 24, 2015

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:

The languages of the future are Chinese, Hindi, Spanish (the latin american and US versions), Arabic, and African languages.

Of these, Hindi would be the easiest for you to learn...


Do you seriously think that Hindi would be easier for a native English speaker to learn than Spanish ? I've never studied Hindi, but to me, just learning the script looks like it would be a daunting task...


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Preston Decker  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 15:18
Member (2013)
Chinese to English
Thoughts Aug 25, 2015

As others have pointed out, you're facing an uphill climb to reach your goals. Then again, most of the posters on this site have made it to the top of that same hill (in terms of being successful freelance translators), so it's not impossible.

It is possible to learn a language at 18 well enough to make a career out of translating, even without much of a linguistic background (I'm proof of that.) However, it will take you years of hard work, and a willingness on your part to be realistic about your strengths and weaknesses.

I would tend to lean slightly towards staying away from the Western European languages (except German) just because of the sheer amount of competition in them. Luckily, there's a bunch of interesting up and coming countries/languages outside of Europe that could be interesting. My gut reaction is that if you're interested in Asia, you'd be better served with Japanese or Chinese than Korean financially. Hindi would be interesting to me as well, except I wonder about competition there, as it seems to me there are an awful lot of near-bilingual speakers in India? Since you'll be translating into English, you're much more reliant on the economy of your source language country than those who translate from English, which is why I'd probably pass on languages involving countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia. Turkish would be an interesting oddball choice, especially as you could conceivably expand into many of the rarer Central Asian languages. You'll be spending a lot of time abroad studying language (at least 2-3 years to get close to being proficient enough to translate), so you'll ultimately want to choose a language with a culture/place that you're interested in and want to spend a good deal of your life in.

I think Maria's post about becoming a lawyer is a brilliant one. In fact, the same could be said about getting into many other fields of work as well. I'm a (somewhat proud) graduate of the 'go to Asia, teach English and see what happens' career path. I wouldn't change anything about this, but then again my only goal after graduating was to return to China. Even if you do plan to go the freelance route, if your goals include making a substantial amount of money by the time you're 30, teaching English is really not the best way to get there. To give you some perspective, my Chinese improved more in the one year I spent in an office job in Beijing than it did during 3.5 years of English teaching in China.

Within a year of beginning study of your language you should have a pretty good idea whether or not you're one of the lucky few with a natural proclivity for picking up languages. In all likelihood you'll be just another average Joe in this department, at least compared to other translators. This isn't a bad thing, but it means that you won't be able to rely on high per-day word counts (there's no question I work slower than a truly bilingual translator) to boost your income, so your business approach will be critical--do you have the business savvy to stand out among your peers?

It's also worth thinking about what you mean by being location independent by the time your 30, and whether this is a worthwhile goal. Ironically, the ages when most people are financially capable of being location independent vs. the ages when they're personally capable of being location independent don't match up. If I had possessed the earning power I have now at the age of 22, I would have traveled all around China and Asia on tourist visas, stopping for a month in each city to translate and experience work there. Now that I'm older, there are greater family demands, and so I'm not as free to travel as I'd otherwise like. To be fair, compared to someone with an office job I am location independent (I've spent half of this year in a city in China and the other half in the US), but I'm a long way away from flitting around the globe as I'd like. This isn't a bad thing, but it is worth considering whether you'll care as much about being location independent at 30 as you do now (especially if you're thinking you might like a family some day.)

There are many reasons why there aren't many 100k translators, but the biggest is that it takes a somewhat unique individual to reach that point. Language proficiency obviously narrows the number of prospective translators down greatly. Financial resources (or a lack thereof) mean that many newbie translators drop out within a year or two. A lack of general business awareness limits the earnings of many translators, as does a lack of desire (the "why work long hours when I can make decent wages with less work" syndrome?). Truly business savvy translators are likely to realize that while they could make 100k a year freelancing, they won't make much more than that, and so might choose to go and start their own agencies, ending their freelance careers. From everything I've heard, the mythical 100k freelancer translator is a bit of an odd duck who is very good at what he/she does, enjoys being their own boss, doesn't mind long hours, and has tremendous business savvy without a concurrent desire to create a bigger business entity.

You're getting lots of good advice on here, and your immediate road ahead is clear: sign up for a language at your uni. Study it at school for two years (perhaps doing law-related internships in the summer) , go abroad to study for another year, and then revisit your future plans at that point. Even if you've decided that you don't want to translate, knowing another language well will likely open up doors for you in most anything you choose to pursue.

[Edited at 2015-08-25 02:49 GMT]


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Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 01:48
Member (2006)
English to Hindi
+ ...
Hindi is not difficult to learn Aug 25, 2015

Jeff Henson wrote:

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:

The languages of the future are Chinese, Hindi, Spanish (the latin american and US versions), Arabic, and African languages.

Of these, Hindi would be the easiest for you to learn...


Do you seriously think that Hindi would be easier for a native English speaker to learn than Spanish ? I've never studied Hindi, but to me, just learning the script looks like it would be a daunting task...


I was working as a consultant to a Paris-based software agency developing a multi-lingual software which involved processing of language rules and grammar. It was being done in various languages including, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic and Hindi.

The developer team had the work in control in all these languages except Hindi. They had a phobia with this language and like you were daunted by the script. They had recruited me specifically to help them get the work moving in Hindi. They even financed a two-week trip to Paris for me to work with their software team. In this short period, I was able to sort out their unreasoned phobia about Hindi and the Devnagari script and the software was up and running in no-time along with the other language versions.

The point is, Hindi script (Devnagari) is no more difficult to learn than any other script. It is in fact one of the most scientific script in the world and almost entirely phonetic, that is, you write exactly as you speak. In this respect, it is a hundred times easier to learn than English with its quirky spellings and pronunciations.

The Hindi script is based on Sanskrit which has been acknowledged as the most suited for working with computers owing to its logical precision.

Moreover, Hindi, as I had mentioned in the earlier post, belongs to the same linguistic family as English - the Indo-European family of languages. Which means, much of the grammatical structure of Hindi has close parallels with English. Of course there are differences, but not as much as there would be between say English on the one hand and Japanese, or Korean, or Chinese on the other.

Another thing in favour of Hindi is its ubiquitousness. You can hear Hindi in every part of the globe, thanks to Bollywood films. You only need to have an ear for it. And in these days of internet and youtube, Hindi has become even more ubiquitous and easy to learn.

So give it a try, and you will soon overcome your inhibitions about its script and realize how easy it is to learn Hindi.


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Lincoln Hui  Identity Verified
Hong Kong
Local time: 04:18
Member
Chinese to English
+ ...
Go teach English, forget about translating Aug 25, 2015

You are looking to get a minor - in an Asian language - starting in your junior year. Scratch that, you haven't even figured out which language you want to study, or even if you want to study a language at all.

From my experience with Japanese, completing the average coursework for a minor (4 semesters) gives you language skills roughly equivalent to that of a 6-year old. I won't think of anyone as remotely qualified to even touch translation for a language before they've had a decade of substantial immersion in it. You plan to move to a country and immerse yourself in its language and culture, without any prior interest in it, simply because you think it might pay well? Your motivations are extremely flimsy and you are going to have a hard time convincing anyone that you are serious, motivated and committed.

US college students are, unfortunately, not a stellar breed of language learners. Given your background, or lack thereof, you will forgive me if I did not credit you with possessing more prowess than your peers.


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Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 20:18
Hebrew to English
Putting the cart before the horse Aug 25, 2015

...your post is the very definition of it.

Are you even interested in languages?
Also, if ROI is your prime motivator, you're going to run into problems pretty quickly.

Other than that, what they said above.


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Peter Kovacik  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 14:18
Arabic to English
See where learning a language takes you Aug 25, 2015

You might use ROI to narrow down the choices for which language you want to study, but in the end there has to be a deep enough interest in the language and its culture for you to sustain language studies in the long run. Since it might be difficult to know which one interests you the most before starting, you could find a few languages that you would consider to have good ROI estimations and then study all of them to a basic level before making a decision.

[Edited at 2015-08-25 21:21 GMT]


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Nele Van den Broeck  Identity Verified
Belgium
Local time: 21:18
French to Dutch
+ ...
Choosing a few languages and then study all of them to a basic level before making a decision Aug 26, 2015

First of all: As others have already mentioned: if you want to pursue your language adventures mostly because you want to have a high ROI, you will probably end up disappointed. You also have to "feel" the language, some sort of a passion for languages is required IMHO.

If, however, ROI isn't your prime motivator, but you really want to learn a new language and get immersed into different cultures, then I do think Peter Kovacik's option would be a good one.

I myself was interested in languages from a very early stage. I started reading in my own native language before the age of 4, never stopped reading (My personal library counts more books than our local library... Yes, I am addicted), heard a lot of French when I was still very young (my grandmother and uncle are French, but they do speak Dutch as well), started reading in French at the age of 10, in English at the age of 11 and in Spanish at the age of 16. In the meanwhile I studied Esperanto (just because I liked it) and Russian by myself at the age of 14 (although I have forgotten most about it, I am trying to get fluent in Esperanto again since a couple of days though).
Languages that are still on my bucket list: German (important in Belgium as well, but I'm not good at it), Polish and Modern Greek. (I translate out of French, Spanish and English into Dutch and hope be able to add either Polish or Modern Greek in about 20 years.

If you really don't know what language you want to master one day, or there are just a lot of languages you are interested in, it might be a good idea to study all of them to a basic level and then decide as Peter Kovacik suggested.
In a very very early stage, just to know if that particular language "suits you", you might even start with the free app Duolingo (only a selection of languages is available at the moment, but more are coming) . You will notice at a very early stage if you might be good at it or not.
I started trying Duolingo (just for amusement, I'm not taking it too seriously) a couple of weeks ago and for fun I tried Turkish, Swedish and German.
I have noticed that for some reason, I think Swedish for me is the easiest one, followed by Turkish and I'm really struggling with German (although it should be closely related to my native language Dutch, and I have had 3 years of German classes in highschool).
I'm still waiting for the Polish and Modern Greek version to appear, but I already know thanks to Duolingo that even though I want to get better at German, it really isn't my cup of tea...


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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 21:18
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
The Hindi alphabet is no more difficult than the icons on a smart phone, and more logical Aug 26, 2015

Balasubramaniam L. wrote:

...

The point is, Hindi script (Devnagari) is no more difficult to learn than any other script. It is in fact one of the most scientific script in the world and almost entirely phonetic, that is, you write exactly as you speak. In this respect, it is a hundred times easier to learn than English with its quirky spellings and pronunciations.

The Hindi script is based on Sanskrit which has been acknowledged as the most suited for working with computers owing to its logical precision.

Moreover, Hindi, as I had mentioned in the earlier post, belongs to the same linguistic family as English - the Indo-European family of languages. Which means, much of the grammatical structure of Hindi has close parallels with English. Of course there are differences, but not as much as there would be between say English on the one hand and Japanese, or Korean, or Chinese on the other.

Another thing in favour of Hindi is its ubiquitousness. You can hear Hindi in every part of the globe, thanks to Bollywood films. You only need to have an ear for it. And in these days of internet and youtube, Hindi has become even more ubiquitous and easy to learn.

So give it a try, and you will soon overcome your inhibitions about its script and realize how easy it is to learn Hindi.


Wow!! I must have a go when I retire...
Seriously, I am quite sure this is true.
As a child I learned about half the Marathi alphabet, which is to a large extent identical with Hindi. Earlier this year, visiting northern India, where many signs are in both Hindi and English, I passed the time on bus trips copying the scripts and learning a few more letters. After ten days I could figure out some signs and place names at least from the Hindi alone...

I was on an intensive study trip with some exciting people, and there was very limited time for language study, so I concentrated on the once-in-a-lifetime visits and opportunities. I can study Hindi later...

If you sit down and learn the alphabet systematically, I bet it is no more difficult than remembering the icons on a smart phone.
Then you have to learn to pronounce it, but sit down with a patient Indian teacher who knows how to tell you where to position your tongue.
(I remember my father explaining the spectrum of t and th sounds ...)
And the varieties rendered by 'd' in English, and so on.

Whether Hindi is the language for you, or whether you really ought to take up a different profession is another matter.

But India is undoubtedly a land of opportunities for those who are not afraid to grasp them.


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