Another Rant on Language

If you want to read others start HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Okay… I’m going to “out” myself.

“My name is C and I have a problem. I’ve been dating my Nepali significant other for seven years and I still can’t speak his language.” (believe me, I blush with shame simply typing the words).

How sad is that? It often makes me feel like a failure, and 2009-2010 has really been the year to rub it in.

Let’s start with our visit to Nepal in the summer of 2009. I took a few language classes, enough to make me almost feel like I was starting to get somewhere. Only to go back to P’s family’s house, be asked all sorts of questions I didn’t understand and for P’s dad to shake his head with disappointment, “She’ll never learn.” When I got back to America, I basically felt like I was back to a linguistic square one.

Then last winter a close friend and I got into an argument one evening. I forget how the discussion started but I was basically told that “Obviously it wasn’t a priority for me to learn Nepali, otherwise I would have done it by now.” That it was basically my fault, and that I “didn’t care enough” to properly learn it. Ouch. That one stung really bad. It still makes me angry to think about it. Perhaps it stings most because I’m worried it is a little true.

Later I was telling another close friend about our discussion and that friend said, “Yeah I agree. It’s either laziness, or lack of interest. You would have done it by now if you really wanted to.” Ouch again.

Then there are the other non-Nepali friends who seem to have a passing interest in the language, who will come for a dinner gathering and learn a few Nepali phrases, and use them in conversation nonchalantly—stuff like “Khana mitho cha” (the food tastes good), or “Malai pugyo.” (I’m full), or count to five—something like that. Inevitably someone will say something like, “It looks like they know more Nepali than you do C!” Which, even if it is said lightheartedly, also hurts. I know quite a lot, at least more than that, thank you very much.

Or the people who think it must be easy to learn the language because I’m surrounded by Nepali people. That I should be able to learn the language by osmosis or something because my head rests next to P’s on the pillows at night. If it were that easy I’d be a Nepali literary critic by now!

The whole thing sucks and makes me mad. Why would I want, in the last seven years, to be the one constantly left out of conversations, or not getting the jokes, or having to wait for a translation? I’m tired of listening to an evening of song and dance and glazing over after a while because I can’t understand and I’ve gotten bored. I don’t want any of that…

But it also sucks because learning a new language is hard work. Being committed to doing that is a full time job. I sometimes feel like people forget that. It’s not like I can listen to Nepali music on an ipod at the gym and tomorrow I’ll magically speak the language. To really learn it, to be able to speak even marginally well, it will be hours and hours of studying, memorizing, quizzing myself, making vocabulary flash cards and practicing conversations. Either in my head or with other people. It’s a major undertaking, and a time consuming one.

Especially when there aren’t any classes. I love language classes. Learning a language in a class is decidedly less work. Sure one has to study, and practice, but a class gives so much usable practice, and really helps to boost one’s confidence. What I wouldn’t give for an affordable, easy Nepali language class option.

I realize that I have used the “but there is no class” excuse for far too long, and I’ve wasted too much time sitting in a room full of Nepali speakers without understanding. I’ve made bold declarations before, but I think I’ve finally reached a point where I need to learn or forever be shamed as “the one who will never learn.”

Why now? Why have I finally reached this ultimate point of frustration? A few reasons:

A)     The reasons cited above

B)      I’m getting married in a few months. Lots of Nepalis will be there and I want to talk to people if I can. P’s family will also come, and I want to speak to them, and finally have them impressed with my language skills instead of shaking their heads in disappointment. Also if we go to Nepal after our marriage I’m sure I’ll be “shown around” to people as the new member of the family, and it would be SO NICE to speak to people instead of silently nodding my head when appropriate. Did I mention how terribly boring it is not to be able to speak? Can you tell how much I like to talk?

C)      It’s also REALLY important to me to be able to speak this language before we have children. Bi-linguality is going to be a major part of our childrearing. Not that I’m planning to have any soon, but language learning is a process, and the time to start learning is definitely not when the baby is trying to learn as well.

D)     And more selfishly– P’s cousin’s American boyfriend recently left for Nepal. He’s a cool guy, and I like him a lot, but I have nightmares of him learning Nepali—which will be a great thing for him, but another reason for P’s  family to be disappointed in me. P’s cousin’s boyfriend plans to stay in Nepal at least 6 months (perhaps longer!) which I never had the luxury to do, and if he takes classes and hangs out with people, I can definitely see him learning a lot.

E)      I have four Nepalis living with me right now. What better opportunity do I have than to hunker down and start learning already? I have a bunch of speaking partners in-house.

F)      Did I mention how *sick* I am of not understanding and contributing to the conversations going on around me?

Since this post is already getting long… tune in tomorrow to hear what I’m going to do about it.

16 responses to “Another Rant on Language

  1. oh i wish you the best of luck, I wouldn’t even know where to begin, I’ve tried learning languages in the past and i guess I didn’t have the interest and its really hard!

  2. I left a comment the other day — I’m the one who said I wanted to chat, and I still do! I’m an American learning Nepali as well. I’d love to compare notes and maybe practice with each other on Skype sometimes. I can do very basic conversation in Nepali and in the Thakuri dialect, but that’s about it. I promise I won’t insult you like your Nepalese friends do because my Nepali is just as bad as yours. XD

    • We should chat sometime. I’m not usually on Skype, I’m on google chat a lot though. I’ll send you my gchat address.

  3. I’m a white American married to a Nepali. We’ve been married for almost two years and dated for about three before that, and I still don’t know the language! :-(
    I get the exact same questions and have the same arguments as you. It’s depressing, and learning from my husband hasn’t been the most helpful. Oh, I have books and spend a lot of time around Nepali people, but I just can’t seem to figure it out. I probably haven’t tried hard enough, and I have used many excuses (no classes, not enough time)…but it seems that when I do learn something, it doesn’t stick.
    It sucks, and I wish it were easier!

    • Yeah, learning from P is terrible to. He means well, but he teaches me nonsense, and tries to have conversations with me with vocabulary that is way beyond my level so I have no hope of keeping up. Boo.

      Once they come up with a magical way to download language into our brains in our sleep, I’ll be the first to sign up for that! ;)

  4. I can’t imagine how frustrating it would be to have people say those things! All the Pakistanis I have ever come across have praised me for my the very, very limited bits of Urdu I am able to parrot back. Even 7+ years down the line, my mother-in-law is still complimenting my “grasp” of “Urdu,” saying it gets better every time she sees me. Quotation marks because it can hardly be described as a grasp and it usually can only barely be called Urdu. It’s not just her either, it seems like all Pakistanis have the idea that Urdu is a very difficult language and that it might just be insurmountable, so everyone’s always seemed impressed with what little I’ve been able to pick up. That helps me what to keep learning more too. I wonder why there’s such a difference between our experiences?

    I feel the exact same way you describe though, being left out of so many comments or having to say most things through a representative. Cut off at the knees in almost every conversational situation. I have to hope I’ll get there someday. And we already had a kid! I think the kid probably has almost the same level or conversational Urdu as me now, too – at four years old. But he also can recognize all 30+ letters as well, so he wins.

    • Its a mixed bag… most people who don’t know me well are impressed if I bang out a few choice phrases, even if I respond to “You understand Nepali?” with “ali ali” (a little).

      But its more the people who know me well who I have the impression that they think I’ve dropped the ball. I can’t help but feel depressed and responsible for not having done better, but then I get frustrated at the expectation “why don’t YOU learn a whole new language!”

      I just wish I learned more languages from a young age. Perhaps it would have made it easier. Why didn’t I meet P when I was five years old?

  5. Sparklydatepalm

    The four Nepalis willneed to turn your houseinto a Nepali-only zone. It’s easier for them to speak to you in English. I have a similar problem with German, we don’t speak it at homebecause it makes conversation difficult. Eventhough I understand a lot, I don’t feel confident speaking so we both lapse back into English. Even when we have other Germans around they speak in English – if I do try to speak in German I soon lapse into English because once I can’t find a word i know I can use English. so odd as this may sound, the harder job is, at least to my mind, getting the others to speak only in Nepali when you are around and refusing to let you lapse into English. Tough going though! Good luck! Apologies for typos – still learning how to use new gadget.

  6. hand in there! even if P teaches you nonsense, be persistent and speak to him only in nepali. eventually, he will also get used to speaking to you in nepali. but you have to be consistent, don’t give up. in the beginning, my now husband and i only spoke in english and one day i started speaking a few words, then sentences and while it was not that easy to convey my thoughts in nepali, it was the continuity of our nepali conversations that helped me. even now, i prefer english b/c my husband also speaks fluent in english, but like you mentioned in your post about one day wanting your kid to speak nepali – i too want my daughter to speak in nepali comfortably.
    Also, as someone mentioned above, make your housemates speak only in nepali with you. And importantly, make sure you respond in nepali, no matter how much they snicker or laugh. in the end you will be the winner! Finally, just to repeat my first sentence, make sure P is helping you out. Punish him if he doesn’t. Good luck! You will make a beautiful bride and a great addition to P’s family.

    • Your right. Its hard to make that jump though, especially as a chatty person. If I only talk in Nepali, at least for the first few months, I’ll barely be able to say anything. And it will be really lonely and sad. I have to do something though, I know that much.

      I was talking with P’s dad last night on video chat, and he mentioned that P’s cousin’s boyfriend is “So good in Nepali… he speaks it all the time! He’s been studying books, so he knows.” Last I spoke he was saying, “bahini means sister” stuff like that, so I know his level isn’t more advanced than mine. I’m sure part of it is that he isn’t afraid to just use the words he knows, instead of being shy until I can say whole sentences. I know I got to go easier on myself, but after this whole set of language posts and to hear how little they feel I can speak last night, just made me feel like more of an idiot :(

  7. Hi there,
    I’m a Nepali guy who’s been following your blog ardently since a few weeks ago.
    I have a Caucasian-American girlfriend who directed me to your blog.
    Reading your blogs has made me more empathic towards her acculturation process.
    Anyway, I have 5 1/2 year old nephew who’s born in US. He didn’t know a word of Nepali until my sis went home for 2months when he was about 4 [my bro-in -law is non-Nepali and they speak in English at home].
    Everyone spoke to my nephew in Nepali and he he picked it up in less than 2months. My sister continued this process by getting a Nepali-speaking nanny for him and he was fluent in the next couple of months.
    What may help is making it a necessity for you – like making sure no others in your house-hold here speak to you in Nepali. Ignore the initial hesitation or fear of embarassment even if they tease oyu or make fun of your choice of words , pronounciation etc. – all jokes get stale at some point :)
    Just give it a good 2 weeks and I’m sure you’ll be on your way soon.
    Movies and song-lyrics , jokes are a good way to go too.
    Not sure if any of this is helpful but good-luck any way.

    p.s.Thanks for a great blog.

    • The problem with this is that the way a young child’s brain picks up languages and the way an adult’s brain picks up languages are completely different. A child’s brain is wired for language learning – if you talk to them in a language, they’re naturally pick it up with no effort. With an adult it’s a completely different sort of situation – more like learning calculus than something natural.

  8. Oops! I meant ’empathetic’ and not ’empathic’ [on line 4].

  9. Hey. I’m a white American girl, dating a Nepali guy. Don’t be too hard on yourself! Learning another language takes a lot of work.
    The nice thing about Nepali is that it doesn’t have too many exceptions to grammatical rules. Verb conjugation is a little bit complicated, especially with the various levels of formality, but once you learn the conjugations, they remain fairly consistent. You might have success by writing down the different tenses and then just starting with first person singular, conjugating the same verb across all the tenses. Once you have the conjugations down, you can substitute other verbs in to practice vocabulary.

    Here is a post by Tim Feriss about language learning. He has some good ideas:

    Raising bilingual children is also important to me. It’s so hard to do it in the US where mono-lingualism is the norm. How do you raise children bilingual in English and Nepali, especially if you’re not living around many other people who speak Nepali?

  10. I echo other comments of “hang in there”. I’ve been married to a Nepali man for 5+ years and have taken language classes and own all the same books you do, but since we live in the U.S., it’s much easier for my husband to speak to me in English, so I get little practice. I get the same exasperated comments from other Nepalis (especially extended family) about my lack of fluency after all this time, and the Nepali-style blunt delivery of comments doesn’t help either. It helps to be around patient Nepalis who remember the struggle of learning a new language and/or who’ve traveled abroad and understand the discomfort of being in entirely new surroundings. And it also helps to have sense of humor, which it sounds like you have after reading your blog! I’m living temporarily in Kathmandu right now and every time I ask my Nepali family’s servant anything in Nepali (e.g. chiya dinos?), she starts giggling hysterically and has to leave the room from laughing so hard. Sigh. Chin up.

  11. I can’t say that I have any great advice to give, because you’ve probably read it all before. You know what you need to do, and realize that your own priorities are having an impact on your efforts, but getting beyond all that is the hard part. I’ve been with a Nepali man for 4 years now, so I understand the difficulties of learning a new language, but I promise that if you put in the time, your efforts will pay off. I don’t speak as someone who is fluent, but as someone who just returned from her first trip to Nepal, and who has learned where she stands in her abilities. And yes, efforts before hand, no matter how trying at times, paid off. There were moments when everyone was talking fast, and I missed practically everything, but then someone would sit down with me, and we’d have our own, slower conversation in Nepali. Those moments will make you realize how worthwhile your efforts are, and they’ll keep you going, giving you energy and confidence for the next stretch of the journey. That’s the only advice that I can give: take the successful moments–those conversations that you have on the street or in the corner of a crowded room, no matter how short–and focus on them. You’ll soon realize that maybe being fluent isn’t such a far-fetched idea after all.

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