Category Archives: Nepali Language

My New Anthem?

I had to share this… since my pitfalls in learning Nepali sometimes make me think, “I can only imagine… if I’ll ever learn!”

My personal favorite lyrics– “I can only imagine/when the day comes/when I find myself/with a loosened tongue,” “When they ask if I have eaten, will I say uh-huh or khae?” and “Surrounded by Nepalis, what will my mouth say?”

So enjoy this Friday fun video:

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Ke Cha?

For work today I organized an African culture program– there was food, live music, African vendors and artisans and information tables set up by students who have studied abroad. I do it each year during Black History Month and call it the “African Caribbean Marketplace.”

So there was a funny story from the Marketplace today. I was talking to one of the Cameroonian vendors– their “market stall” was manned by a husband/wife team. The wife was American and had lived in Cameroon for 16 years, and she met her husband there. He used to work in the Cameroonian tourist industry, but came back to the US with his wife two years ago, and now helps some of this artisan friends sell handmade African products in the US.

When he found out that I understood French he started switching over to the language he felt most comfortable in, but when his wife would overhear she would say, “No no French… try practicing your English. You are always cheating” The husband’s English was pretty good, having not spoken a word of English before he arrived in the US, he had come a long way. Occasionally he threw in a French word here or there but he was definitely understandable.

However he kept apologizing for his “poor English” and said, “My wife, she is American, but still my English is not so good.”

I said to him, “Don’t worry– my partner, he is from another country too. Do you know the tallest mountain in the world? Mt. Everest? He is from that country.”– the guy looked at me blankly, he had no idea where I was talking about.

“Anyway, I live with him and see him everyday, but I can barely speak any of his language. Don’t worry, your English is so much better than what I can speak of his language.”

Then he asked, “What language does your husband speak?”

I answered, “Nepali.”

“Ohhh, Nepal. I have a friend from Nepal. We work together at the Whole Foods in Boston.” He said.

“Do you want to surprise him?” I asked. There are a lot of Nepalis in Boston, so I wasn’t surprised he knew someone. “Next time you see him, ask him ke cha. It basically means ‘how are you?’ in Nepali.”

His eyes widened. “What? How do you say?”

Ke cha.

He repeated it a few times and when I told him he had it right he smiled. “You know, this word… it also has meaning in my mother tongue.”

“Oh yeah?” I asked, “What does it mean?”

“Well,” he said, “When a women has, hmmm, how you say? A big, a nice… butt. A nice back-end. This, this is what ke cha means. Not just ‘big’ but ‘big and nice’ like nice shape. Like ‘that woman has a ke cha.

Well, that wasn’t what I was expecting. So we both had a hardy laugh.

“I guess it goes the other way too… you know the capital of Senegal?” (another French speaking West African country).

“Yes, Dakar.” He answered.

“Well in my partner’s language, ‘dakar’ means ‘burp.'”

He looked at me funny and said, “What this means?” He turned to his wife and she said in French, “After you eat a lot of food you make a sound with your mouth, like ‘errp’ this is what it is called in English.”

“People do this much here?” He asked.

“Well, not really, it is not considered polite.” she said.

“Back home its very good to ‘burp‘ after eating. Everyone does this. It means the food was good.”

And we laughed a little more on the quirkiness of language and culture.

So anyway– now when ever I say “ke cha” I’m going to think about a woman’s– how you say, “big, nice butt”– this expression has changed now for me forever ;)

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.

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.

Dai, Bhai and Babu

One thing in particular that I like about Nepali culture (although this phenomenon is more or less pan-South Asian) is the usage of “uncle,” “aunty,” “dai,” and “didi” (and I guess “bhai” and “bahini” although I don’t use these very often—and for little kids— “babu” and “nanu.”)

Why?

Because I can’t always remember the names of all the new people that I meet at a party and consolidating everyone into one of these categories makes life so much easier!

“Uncle” and “aunty” are easy and self explanatory. Nearly everyone who is just about old enough to be your parent (or older) can be put into this category. Using these words in this way does not denote kinship—most people who are related to you would have a different set of terms anyway— but it is a way to refer to elders with proper respect.

When I first met P’s dad I was at a loss as to what to call him. My Nepali friends insisted on “uncle” but calling my partner’s father “uncle” struck me as sounding a little odd. So I avoided using any formal title for a while and eventually blurted out what was most comfortable to me, “Mr. P” (P’s last name starts with P as well), which made my group of friends burst out in giggles because “It sounds too weird when you call him that!” since everyone else was calling him “uncle.”

However I must note, in case people out there are worried about what to call their significant other’s parents, I’ve known other Nepali couples who have referred to their future in-laws as “uncle” and “aunty” until marriage. Even if the terminology sounds weird to me, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t culturally acceptable!

Anyway, I digress. Beyond P’s parents, all the other older Nepali people I’ve met—parents of friends, friends of parents, etc–easily fall into “uncle” and “aunty” categories.

“Dai” (older brother) and “Didi” (older sister) are relatively easy too. Most of my friends size up people on their first meeting and decide whether to use this title or not. For example, some of our younger friends will call P P-dai even if he is just a few years older, and I call our older neighbors S-di (short for “didi”) and M-dai.

One has to be a little careful though, because if “dai” or “uncle” is used for someone who is not as old or young as you think it can be either a bit offensive, embarrassing or comedic. For instance S-di’s two daughters who are about high school age like to tease one of our friends by calling him “uncle” even though he is too young to be an uncle to them, thus making it a bit comedic and a little embarrassing. However if I meet a new person who is only about ten years older than me and misjudge their age and call them “aunty”—well, you can imagine that I’d probably embarrass or offend that person a bit.

“Dai” and “didi” can be just as versatile as “uncle” and “aunty.” I’ve heard P call taxi drivers and shop keepers in Nepal “dai” while negotiating with them, as well as family friends. “Dai” and “didi” can be used on their own or attached to a name like P-dai, S-di and likewise Frank Uncle.

“Bhai” (younger brother) and “bahini” (younger sister) can be used in the same way as “dai” and “didi.” Although I don’t hear these terms used with as much frequency as “dai” and “didi” probably in part to “dai” and “didi” being more respectful terms, and one should respect your elders more readily than perhaps your youngers.

“Babu” and “nanu” are great terms to know if there are little kids around. Little boys are “babus” and little girls are “nanus.” They are more like terms of endearment, like “little cutie” or something similar. There is one little “babu” that I am beginning to know relatively well, and I don’t have any idea what his real name is because every time I see him he is simply “Babu.”

So if you find yourself at a Nepali wedding, party, or other social event in a room full of people you don’t really know with various age groups, at least the people who aren’t your age could fall into one of these categories and you can focus on remembering the names of your contemporaries instead.

Quick Reference:

Uncle, Aunty—same as English
Dai– older brother
Didi or Di—older sister
Bhai—younger brother
Bahini—younger sister
Babu—little boy
Nanu—little girl

Me and Babu

Your Naak is Getting Thulo

There is a phrase P occasionally playfully teases me with. He said it last night, so I thought I’d post about it…

In English when someone is complemented or praised too much you might accuse that person of “getting a big head” meaning all the praise might make him or her too proud or make them think that they are really great—something like that. There is a similar expression in Nepali, but instead of your head getting big, it’s your naak or your nose. The phrase is something like “Timro naak thulo hudai cha” your nose is getting big. Instead P will say to me, “Your naak is getting thulo.”

Last night the expression was said in the context of: I had a gift card to go to one of those pizza places with specialty pizzas—not your regular mushroom or pepperoni, but cheeseburger, nacho, or Greek salad pizza, stuff like that. I thought the pizza was really good, but P said it was only “okay” he’d had better, “actually your homemade pizza is a lot better than this.”

I smiled, “Oh yeah? Good to know.”

“Uh oh, your naak is getting thulo.”

Another instance when my naak gets a bit thulo? When I get a large number of blog views on a particular day ;)

So perhaps the next time your significant other gets unsolicited compliments and you want to tease them about it… you can mention their thulo naak as well.

Linguistically Jealous…

Last night we had dinner with two sets of “couple” friends. Rice; daal; potato and green bean curry; P and AS made a Mule Deer curried stew from some of the meat my dad gave us at Christmas time; I experimented with some cheese and spinach stuffed mushrooms. Everything was tasty and the dinner was fun.

As with most dinners, the conversation went back and forth, and eventually we were talking about a couple we knew who was struggling with jealousy issues. From that stemmed a conversation about whether anyone of us has ever been jealous.

I’ll admit it. There was one time in particular that I was a bit jealous…

Last week I attended one of the Black History Month events at my work. Former MTV reality star Mohammed Bilal came to campus with a really interesting speech on “12 Steps toward Appreciating Diversity.” One of the steps (I can’t remember which) was, “Learn a new language. You won’t truly understand someone else unless you can talk to them in their own language.” Which brings me to what made me jealous:

The first few years at university the only Nepalis I knew were guys. There were about four or five of them and there had been several others along the way, including P. Some people at the International House used to joke that Nepalis mustn’t let women study abroad, since only guys came to our school from their country for as long as any of us could remember. However, my third year, while I was abroad, a few more Nepalis came to the school, including one girl—KS. I used to hear from P about all the stuff going on at school while I was gone, and by the time I got back to the school in January, I felt like I already knew these new students.

I was surprised though, the first few times I listened to P interact with KS. They weren’t flirting or anything remotely like that (for pete’s sake, KS always called the other Nepalis “dai,” older brother, and you don’t flirt with your older brother!) The thing that made me jealous was that they could communicate with each other so fluently in P’s own language, something that I simply couldn’t do. I remember feeling like I couldn’t connect with him linguistically in the same intimate way that she could because I didn’t understand that much beyond the basics. It wasn’t what they were saying that irked me, but that they could say it. Being able to communicate with someone at that very personal, primal level, so far from home– of course it’s comforting, and I was sad I couldn’t provide that same feeling as well. It is one of the reasons I try not to object too much when others speak Nepali in the US around me (at least when I’m the only non-Nepali speaker in the room), because I know it is such a part of their identity.

The jealousy didn’t last long, but I’ll never forget how I felt, listening (for the first time) to P talk in Nepali with a Nepali girl. I know it was silly, but language is so personal, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of jealousy. You’d think it would make me even more inspired to learn the language, but fast forward six years or so and I’m still not too far along (I just wish I could enroll in a proper class!!). I’m getting better little by little, but it’s been a very slow and disappointing process.

So there is my jealousy story to share around the dinner table.