Learning Nepali

In my office I have a beach ball with about 150 questions written all over it in black Sharpie marker. I call this “Icebreaker Beach Ball” and use it for new student orientations. It has everything from “do you sing in the shower?” to “if you were invisible for 24 hours what would you do?” Students toss the ball to each other, introduce themselves, and whatever question is under their right thumb they have to answer. The students get a kick out of it, and the game can even be fun at large dinner parties. One of the questions on the ball is “if you could become instantly fluent in another language- what would it be and why?” whenever I get this question I want to yell from the top of my lungs… NEPALI, SO I CAN FINALLY UNDERSTAND EVERYTHING!!!!

Yep, that's my Icebreaker Beach Ball... I'm very proud

Yep, that's my Icebreaker Beach Ball... I'm very proud

I fully admit that my lack of Nepali aptitude is my own fault… there are a million different times that I could have picked up a book and studied Nepali vocabulary or verb tenses instead of watching a movie, or going for a walk, or even writing 150 icebreaker questions all over a beach ball, but heck, I like to think that I’ve had some factors working against me.

First of all I don’t have a natural talent for languages–I do have to work at it–but with that said I’ve taken classes in French, Spanish, Arabic, Kiswahili (Kenya), Wolof (Senegal), and Hindi. I was a French minor as an undergraduate and at one time could write short plays and read short chapter books in Swahili. It is tough to try and keep a descent level of communicability in several different languages at the same time, particularly when you learned them as an adult, and when your language aptitude is being evaluated for a grade, it is harder to focus on a language that isn’t part of your academic curriculum. Plus there always seemed to be something else going on- whether writing a thesis or tired from work, or needing another language for another project at the time. Not to mention that Nepali is not a frequently spoken world language, so Rosetta Stone and other highly rated language programs do not have it as an option (although the minute Rosetta comes out with Nepali- believe you me- I’ll be one of the first to purchase it!  You can actually fill out a “request a new language” form through Rosetta’s website. I did my part, please support the cause!)

Plus, I know how I learn languages. Yes books are great, but I know I need a class, and I need to practice communicating with a teacher who can drill me on conversations for which I already know vocabulary. I can’t tell you how many times P and I have tried to “practice Nepali” on a long car trip, only to have my pronunciation critiqued to the point where the conversation goes nowhere… “its BuddHa not Buddha or BudDHA… can’t you hear the difference??” (no!!!) or an older Nepali neighbor will insist on talking to me in Nepali but will use complicated or sophisticated words that I don’t understand and again the conversation goes nowhere.

The Nepali alphabet uses Devanagri script like Hindi

The Nepali alphabet uses Devanagri script like Hindi

So I often wind up sitting at Nepali get-togethers and I am one of the few if not the only person who can’t understand all of the conversation. While it is not so much of an issue now that I know everyone very well and can easily have my own side conversations, when we first moved I felt really lonely and isolated due to my language bonding barrier, and I don’t want to be in this same situation again.

I can sympathize with the Nepali students, I’ve lived abroad before, and I know how comforting it is to speak in your mother tongue when you are far from home. Plus I don’t want to be the one party-pooper who declares “please, everyone, speak in English for my benefit” (although occasionally I don’t mind being that person when the gathering is a mixed crowd and I see other non-Nepali speakers feeling uncomfortable).

Speaking of these gatherings… In fact, there used to be a trio of older Nepali grad students (R-dai*, M-dai and S-di)  who loved to sing. Once the party was off to a good start you could tell that the eldest, R-dai, was just itching to break into song. Nothing killed a mixed gathering (Nepalis/non-Nepalis) more than R-dai’s singing, and a few of us would be on “R-dai singing distraction” duty to make sure he didn’t start for a few hours to give the mixed gathering a bit of a chance.

It’s not that he was bad, quite the contrary, many of the Nepalis complimented him on how well he sang, but the killer was—once he started he would literally sing for hours–and almost exclusively in Nepali, not even Bollywood hits that other South Asians in the group could relate to. The non-Nepali guests would be polite and listen to a few songs, but when it became clear it would not stop, they would start making their excuses, say goodnight and tiptoe towards the door.

I admit there were many nights where I valiantly tried to stay interested as long as possible (there is only so much you can listen to when you can’t understand or participate) but eventually grew bored after the 12 or 13th song- there were even a few times when I attempted (unsuccessfully) to get some of the younger Nepalis to sing an English song over the Nepali songs, competition style, but it wouldn’t really work. R-dai was into it, half the room would be singing along, S-di would be in the middle of the floor shaking her hips with traditional dance moves while M-dai brought out his wooden flute or his drum to keep up the rhythm.

Although I didn’t know all the words, eventually I recognized a lot of these older folk songs, and could do some of the dance steps if need be. I didn’t truly appreciate this until I went to a wedding outside of Kathmandu in June and most of the music was Nepali folk. I’m sure I got quite a few surprised stares when I recognized one of M-dai’s favorites, jumped onto the dance floor and started crouching over, waving my arms airplane style and stomping my feet while spinning around in the fashion I’d seen him do back in the US (I’m pretty sure its this song below–Chari Ma Mero).

Typical Nepali gathering... S-di (back row- 5th from right), M-dai (front row, 3rd from right) and R-dai (front row, most right). P and I are back row 4th and 2nd from right respectively

Typical Nepali gathering... S-di (back row- 5th from right), M-dai (front row, 3rd from right) and R-dai (front row, most right). P and I are back row 4th and 2nd from right respectively

Anyway, I digress… the point of the story is that I’m frustrated with my lack of Nepali speaking abilities. In fact, at this point, it is kind of embarrassing that I can’t say that much, even if I can understand a great deal more than I ever could before. In one exasperated moment while visiting Nepal P’s dad said, “after all these years all you know is namaste and dhanyavad” and although not true, it was fair enough, since I couldn’t carry on much more than the simplest of conversations. I am fully committed to being a bi-lingual household once P and I have kids somewhere down the road, and even encourage P to talk to our dog in Nepali. At some point, I’m going to have to get my linguistic act together and do some hardcore learning. So I wanted to declare that I am going to make a committed effort to learn far more Nepali this year than I have been able to do thus far, and hopefully the blog will keep me on track. So- enough with the excuses…

* “dai” is the Nepali suffix meaning “elder brother,” used to denote respect for someone elder to you, but not old enough to be considered an uncle. “Di” or “didi” is the Nepali suffix meaning “elder sister,” used in the same way as “dai.”

Other Links…

  • One of my favorite Nepali folk songs and one that I can actually sing along with at the parties… Kehi Mitho
  • I also quite like this one… Resham Feriri
  • S-di would dance similar to this kind of style
  • Another popular Nepali song to sing…especially if you can’t speak the language, just belt out a confident “NE-PA-LI HO!!” at the end of the chorus… Yo Manta Mero Nepali Ho
  • Okay, okay, I’ll stop with the Nepali music videos before I turn into R-dai… but while on the subject of Nepali songs, here is a fun NPR article about an American who became a bit famous in Nepal from singing in music videos with a popular Nepali singer (although if you ask most Nepalis they would hardly call this American a “Rock Star”) “My Brother, the Rock Star in Nepal”
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6 responses to “Learning Nepali

  1. Hmmm… would you be interested in doing a group thing, where everyone commits to so much studying each day/week and check in, report on progress, etc?

    I need to learn both Bengali and Hindi to communicate effectively with Aditya’s family, so I feel your pain. Hindi has plenty of resources, but Bengali certainly does not.

    • I would definitely be up for something like that! If there are others out there that want to jump on the bandwagon I think it would be a great idea!

  2. Thank you so much for this ice breaker idea! I used it with two 2nd year university (sophomore for the Americans) groups on the first day class and it went over really well. I could not find a beach ball, but the inflatable pumpkin was a more than adequate substitute.

    Thanks again.

    Ishan

  3. So I came across this site and found you post fascinating. I am engaged to a Nepali woman myself and am trying to learn Nepali. All of my attempts have been fruitless to date and am wondering if you know of any good tools to use.

    Any help would be really appreciated

    • Hi “DC”

      I wish I could say I found the magic tool, but alas, I’m still struggling a bit. I think it is a tough language to just learn with a book, but so far I’m liking “A Course in Nepali” by David Matthews. It’s not for the faint of heart– its a lot of straight up grammar and exercises, but I find the no nonsense aspect of the book helpful too. I haven’t found a computer program or language tape I like enough yet.

      Good luck!! And congrats on the engagement!

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