So What Am I Doing About It? (Language Part II)

To see my rant from yesterday visit HERE.

I’ve been hesitant to write a blog post on this subject because sometimes when I make “bold statements” afterward I hit a wall and fizzle out. But I’ve actually gotten into a good rhythm in the past week or two, and I want to try and keep it up. I hope that writing about it will motivate me more (fingers crossed).

So I  pretty much own every Nepali learning tool under the sun. I’ve even started an email campaign for Rosetta Stone to come out with a language learning cd for Nepali (to no avail).  So what do I have?

The last few times I attempted to learn on my own I used Teach Yourself Nepali and A Basic Course in Spoken Nepali (a resource P brought back from Kathmandu a few years ago which I think was developed for use by the Peace Corps). I took a very expensive and short lived Nepali language class in Boston where the tutor used “A Basic Course in Spoken Nepali” as well as Nepali a Beginner’s Primer (full text available online) from Cornell University’s language program. Another reader mentioned he was using “Nepali a Beginner’s Primer” and seemed to like it (I think he said there were tapes available too– if you don’t have a native speaker in your home). When I took a few language classes in Nepal in 2009 my teacher used “A Basic Course in Spoken Nepali” as a guide, but we didn’t really use any text book. I also have a few small Nepali dictionaries, but I haven’t gotten that far with them yet– actually I still have trouble looking up words because (besides the first line of letters– Ka, Kha, Ga, Gha, Nga) I always forget the order, so the dictionaries are a little useless to me right now unless I take a lot of time with them.

I’ve had one book on the shelf for a long time that I’ve (time and time again) neglected to pick up and try to use in earnest– until last week. So far, so good.

It’s A Course in Nepali by David Matthews. It’s a no frills book (as you can probably tell from the cover… that’s probably why I waited so long to crack it open)—unlike “Teach Yourself” there are no diagrams, pictures or cutesy dialogues starting each chapter. As one reviewer wrote, “[it] is a very well written textbook, it does not assume any previous knowledge of the language… [however] this book is not an easy textbook, [as] it tends to cover all important grammatical points of the language, making the book very dense… If you are not serious about studying Nepali, or just want to learn some phrases for a short trip to Nepal, this book is definitely not for you, in that case you should buy Lonely Planet’s Nepali Phrasebook.” (which I also have).

But if you want to be a serious language student, I think this book might be exactly what you’re looking for. As the reviewer stated, “The exercises are well designed and closely correspond to the content of each lesson.” And there are plenty of dialogue exercises and translation pieces to practice with. I found that in the first few chapters there was enough new material that I didn’t easily feel bored and skip lessons (and lose interest) which can happen with books like “Teach Yourself” if you already have the basics (I mean, how many times do you need to learn “namaste?” “namaste,” “mero nam C ho,” etc). Again, it’s no frills, but I feel I am learning and retaining more than I have before. My notebook is starting to fill up with notes and the answers to exercises.

The other nice thing is that I feel I have found a happy medium between learning in Nepali script and learning in English transliteration.

This is the age old debate when you are trying to learn a foreign language that uses a different alphabet. Do you spend all your time learning the alphabet, and run the risk of it being weeks or months before you can actually start saying tangible things? Or do you skip the alphabet and go back to learn it later, once you got the basics? I’ve had tutors with both philosophies.

When I was taking the short lived but super expensive language classes in Boston, my teacher felt it was really important that I learn everything in devanagari. He insisted that I would never pronounce anything correctly unless I learn with the Nepali alphabet since it is so phonetic. Writing “sa” for श or “bha” for भ would never help me “speak like a Nepali” but writing everything exclusively in devanagari made it hard for me to memorize words, and I wasted a lot of (expensive class) time getting bogged down with the script.

When I went to Nepal and took a few classes, I went the complete other way, and told the teacher I could care less about reading, I just wanted to communicate orally on a basic level. We wrote out everything in English transliteration phonetically– “perfect pronunciation be damned!”– and I felt I learned a lot more in a short period of time.

But now I want both—to speak and to really know the words, to understand what it is when I see it. I’m still in the phase of “perfect pronunciation be damned” … as long as I’m understandable, but visualization is very important for me. I realize that I am a visual person. You can tell me a phrase ten times, but until I write it out and see it on paper, its not going to stick. Right now I feel I can do that. I know the alphabet (save for a few of the more unusual letters/sounds which I need to be reminded of) well enough that I can read nearly everything that I need to (so far) in the book, but since everything is both written out in devanagari and English transliteration I can take notes both ways. I also know how I pronounce things, so if the author uses an English spelling I don’t recognize (usually a funky phonetic letter like “ʃ” for “sa”), I can easily use the spelling I know from other material or from knowing the word from friends.

It’s still new, but I’m moving along. I’ll keep you updated. And hopefully this time I’ll actually succeed in becoming at least conversational. If I can have a good conversation over tea in the next month, I’ll be over the moon.

If anyone needs help learning devanagari script I’d recommend the Teach Yourself Beginner’s Hindi Script. I used this before going to India and found it very helpful in setting me off in the right direction.

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6 responses to “So What Am I Doing About It? (Language Part II)

  1. Just curious, I never really asked you, but you have mentioned in some posts that Prajjwal’s mom is Newari. Is his dad as well, or are the ethnically intermarried? Does his family speak Newari or Nepali at home?

    • His mom is Newari but his dad is Chetri. His dad claims to speak Newari (although his mother says not so well), neither he nor his brother know how to speak too much Newari, which isolated them from his mom’s family events growing up

  2. Where i can find that book, Course in Nepali?

    • I found it on Amazon.com. You might be able to find it on Amazon or a similar book website in your home country :)

  3. I read the previous post and this one and I think you are being too hard on yourself and your friends need to relax too. It is very hard to learn a new language in adulthood and more so if you live in a country where it isn’t spoken often and Nepali isn’t the easiest language to pick up for English speakers, probably easier for someone who speaks Indian languagues. Though you live with other Nepali speakers I’m guessing that they often speak English or switch between the two and they probably only speak in English to you. My husband’s mothers grew up in Kathmandu and speaks Nepali and though he picked up a lot of it growing up through vacations in Nepal he’s lost most of it now and can only understand stray phrases. And as far as children go the method I’ve seen mixed race couples use is for one parent to exclusively talk to the child in their language, usually the non English one. The kids pick up English when they go to school anyway and sometimes the other parent learns it from the child :)

  4. I was wondering in your opinion is it better to learn the script? When I was in Korea I learnt that script and found it is much easier to to speak and pronounce Korean correctly from the script vs English transliteration. Is Nepali script the same way?

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