Category Archives: Langauge, General

“Why the Brain Doubts a Foreign Accent”

When I got to work this morning my boss, who has a relatively thick Danish accent (even though he has been in the states for nearly 30 years), handed me a Scientific American article. His American wife, who is a high school Spanish teacher, had found it and wanted to pass it along…

The article is called “Why the Brain Doubts a Foreign Accent,” and is a brief discussion of a few short experiments created to try and reason out why native speakers of a language have little patience with, or tend not to listen well, to a foreign accent.

I thought the readership of this blog might find it interesting, so in turn I wanted to pass it on to you! Happy Friday.

Endangered Tongues

After my rant on learning Nepali language perhaps it might seem ironic I wanted to post on preserving Nepali languages. Yet even with my own linguistic frustrations, I am a staunch supporter of preserving languages, particularly less spoken ones.

My undergraduate honors thesis was titled: “Imperial Versus Indigenous: Language Usage and Cultural Identity” which looked at the use of English and Swahili in Kenya and French and Wolof in Senegal. I found the topic wildly interesting, particularly the language usage in literature debate between famous Nigerian author Chinua Achebe (who I’ve mentioned before) and Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiong’o.

Achebe in his book of selected essays “Hopes and Impediments” tackles the question of using the colonial language (English) in his novels. His argument is that the history of colonialism gave him the knowledge that enables him to connect to a wider readership, and he would rather use English as a medium to get his message out, rather than a local language that might be read in parts of Nigeria (also important and valuable), but might not bring Nigerian history, culture and issues to a world stage. His books are heavily culture laden, and in some of his later works he incorporates the use of Nigerian pidgin English in character conversations, but he firmly supports the use of English.

Ngugi on the other hand, first became famous with his novels in English, but later swore off the language, and in his final book in English, “Decolonizing the African Mind,” vowed never again to write in any language other than Kiswahili or Kikuyu (his mother tongue). His argument was that authors, particularly successful authors, should support local languages to encourage their continued use and growth in the written word. That authors with important messages valid to the outside world shouldn’t feel shackled by colonial languages because the age old use of translation can help bring their ideas to a wider audience, not to mention create jobs for local people who can translate these works (if it works for Russian or Japanese why not Kikuyu?).

In several essays the two seemed to be talking to each other, always agreeing to disagree with the other’s point of view. I value them both as important African voices, and I can definitely sympathize with each.

As a reader, if a book is not in English, then it is cut off from me. My friend N’s brother in law wrote a bestseller in Nepali, and although the book sits on the bookshelf in my house, I’m currently helpless to appreciate it. (And I’ve been told even if I could read it in English, it would obviously be richer in Nepali). Although not all the literature is accessible by me,  I value the fact that there is a literary culture in Nepal in (an) indigenous language(s).

However the fact that Nepali is, worldwide, a less spoken language and it is hard enough to learn the  official language outside of the country, consider the multitude of other languages spoken in the country that have far less support and infrastructure. Language is a part of culture, the very words of the language help to create the world it exists in, and languages that become extinct snuff out a whole encyclopedia of indigenous knowledge.

So I wanted to point out that The Asia Mag had an interesting article on endangered Nepali languages and what is being done to preserve them. In a country with nearly 29 million people there are 40 languages spoken within its borders, many of which are growing smaller day by day.

While on the topic of language… a few weeks ago there was news of a  new language recently discovered in northern India (NPR feature), and a new book out about seeking out and preserving some of the world’s most endangered languages, “The Last Speakers.”

And lastly, N’s mother, who is also a Nepali author, will be coming to stay with us for the next few weeks. As a budding writer (or writer wanna be) and avid reader, I’m interested to meet her and see what kind of advice and insight she may have.

Where Are You From Originally?

The US is full of accents and I live cradled between two of the more famous accent regions… Boston and New York—or should I say “Bahstahn” and “Noo Yawk.”

Many of my aunts live in New Jersey (Noo Joisey), so I grew up hearing things like dawg, cawfee, and gawd (dog, coffee and god), but now in New England I hear a lot of dropped “r’s” such as the stereotypical Bostonian accented phrase, “I pahked the cah in Hahvahd Yahd” (I parked the car in Harvard Yard). And I can’t forget the usage of “wicked” as in “really” such as… “Wow! It’s been a wicked haht summah!” (hot summer).

Growing up (in central New York… far from all the cawfee shops and heavy accents) I never thought I had an accent, I guess most of us don’t until we meet other people, but I always thought I sounded kind of like the people I watched on tv. I didn’t find anything particularly distinguishable about the way I spoke, and I suppose my sisters and parents spoke in a similar fashion.

But then, about ten years ago, I started traveling extensively abroad and increasingly interacting with people from countries other than my own. Today I probably spend 80-90% of my day with foreigners and over time I guess it started to affect my accent. It wasn’t intentional, it just happened, and it isn’t something I’m conscious of unless someone points it out to me.

Which happened recently. Last week my mother and sister came for a visit and they were discussing my apparent change of accent. My mother said I was “putting on airs” while my sister just said I was trying to “sound British.” I don’t think either is true.

Some of my international students have noticed as well. I’ve had several ask me, “Where are you originally from? You don’t sound like you are from the US.” When I ask them where I sound like I am from they can’t usually place it. After responding that I am, in fact, from the US they say, “Maybe you sound different because you speak slower and more deliberately. You clearly pronounce all your words.”

And I think that is a big part of it… not airs, but when someone is used to speaking with people whose first language is not English you choose your words more carefully, you pronounce them fully (instead of dropping T’s like a lot of Americans tend to do), and you speak a bit slower, perhaps this makes you sound like you are from somewhere else.

I’ve noticed this with a few other people I’ve met who have spent significant time abroad, or spend a lot of time with foreigners. I’ve also noticed that this type of “accent” is more pronounced in these same people when I see them talking to others whose English is not as strong, rather than with foreigners whose English is completely fluent.

Plus it’s easy to reflect surrounding language as well. For example, in the part of central New York where I grew up we pronounced the word “aunt” like “ant” with a hard “A,” but in New England most people say “aunt” like “ah-unt” and since this is similar to the South Asian way of saying “ah-unty” I have found it easier to adjust to “ah-unt.” So now if I am talking to my sisters about my “ah-unt” I must sound to them more “British” since they will talk about the same aunt as “ant.”

Lastly, I won’t deny that I have picked up a few Nepali-English phrases as well that kind of pop out every now and then. I can’t really think of any off the top of my head, but if I say them in the company of my sister she calls me out on it.

Fun with accents– I found this website that lets you listen to a list of words spoken by people in different regions. If you use the word “father” and try the different areas in the US– Chicago, Boston, New York, North Carolina and Alabama, you can really hear the difference!

Talking about accents has made me feel “wicked smaaht.”

Beef… It’s What’s For Dinner…

Beef was a big part of my childhood. As I’ve mentioned before, we were a real “meat and potatoes” kind of family. Both of my parents worked, cooking in general wasn’t a big thing in our house (aside from my dad’s meat dishes, especially summer barbeques), and we ate stuff that was quick and easy. That included lots of beef dishes—meatloaf, hamburger (and Hamburger Helper), steak, roasts, tacos, meatballs, crockpot stew, and of course, corned beef. Hamburgers in particular were very common.


“Beef—It’s what’s for dinner” advertisement from 1992.

I was never a big fan (aside from corn beef. That was the one meat I did really like, I guess it was the inner Irish calling out), and I used to argue relentlessly about eating meat every night (or silently feed chunks to the dog under the table).

Life is really different now, and although I’m happily meat-free, our freezer is occasionally stocked with P’s meaty pleasures—chicken, pork, goat, fish, unusual game meat from my dad–but no beef. His mother is very religious (a combo of Buddhist and Hindu), and would never dream of bringing beef into her house. I’m sure she had nightmares that an American daughter-in-law would not only eat beef herself, but also corrupt her son and grandchildren into eating it. My veggie-ness helped win over her heart. She sees me as an ally in keeping P’s meat consumption down, and can rest assured there will be no unholy beef eating in her son’s home.

That doesn’t mean that every friend of ours who grew up in a Nepali Hindu household has a strict “no beef” philosophy. Our friend AD jokes, “Only Nepali cows are sacred, so an American cow is fine. I have no problems eating burgers in the US” while others seem less worried about breaking taboos and eating beef in general (if you aren’t particularly religious, then the taboo probably doesn’t mean that much anyway).

But sometimes you eat things you don’t intend to, without even realizing it, which reminds me of a funny story from last Thursday. I was driving south (to the Gori meetup) and of course dropped in for dinner at R and S’s house (plus they were babysitting my dog, who wasn’t feeling great. Thanks guys, you’re the best!). They made homemade pizza for a quick dinner so I could get back on the road, one veggie and one meat with pepperoni. There was a debate over whether pepperoni was beef or pork, and whether pepperonis in general are made from beef, pork or some combination of both.

During the discussion R stated, “I prefer not to eat beef, I really try not to…but sometimes it happens… For instance, I knew that cheeseburgers were beef… but I always thought that hamburgers were made from pork.”

“Why would you think that? The only difference is a piece of cheese.” I said.

“No… don’t you see… cheeseburger meant beef, but hamburger meant pork.”

“I still don’t get it, it’s just a  slice of cheese.”

“Cheeseburger and hamburger” she said, adding an extra emphasizes to the ham part, “People know that ‘burger’ means beef, so cheeseburger means made with beef, but why would you call a plain beef burger hamburger unless it was made with pork? Don’t they have chicken burgers made of chicken?” She rationalized.

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” I reflected.

“So I always assumed hamburger was pork, and one day I was sitting with my cousins talking about how I don’t eat beef, while eating a hamburger. They said, ‘R—you are eating beef right now!’ and I said, ‘But it isn’t a cheeseburger!’ and they had to explain! It took a while for me to believe them!”

Isn’t English fickle?

Oh… I had to add this… From a British comedy sketch on “what it means to be Hindu”–

“My son… you are indeed right… [Hinduism] is a very complex and intricate religion. There are many gods, there are many texts, but they all point to one universal principle… no beef” (ha ha ha).

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”