I’ve mentioned a few times that one of my goals for this trip is to learn as Nepali as I can. I’ve surprised even myself by fervently sticking to this goal. While I’ve slowed down a bit during Prabal Thaba’s visit in the past few days, in general I’ve spent at least an hour of two studying every day. My source for learning is a fantastic book I bought in Thamel, Kathmandu called Teach Yourself. It’s 24 chapters, and I’m on chapter 5.
I had tried to learn the Nepali alphabet before arriving here, so I made flashcards a couple weeks before leaving Vermont. My source of pronunciations proved wildly inaccurate for some letters though, as I discovered on my flight from Dubai to Kathmandu from the older couple sitting next to me. I originally began speaking with Basu, in the middle seat next to me at the window. He was a marketer for a perfume company, and lived Northeast of Kathmandu with his wife, Indira, who was silently listening to us jabber. She still said nothing as I showed Basu my flashcards to cross-check his pronunciations. When I asked him to write “Ama” (meaning mother) in my Moleskine, he feebly took my pen and, with a shaking hand, wrote in Nepali. He clearly had never learned to write. This was when Indira playfully snatched the book from him and began a well-organized lecture (with Basu interjecting from time to time), fueled by my questions, for the remainder of the flight. She was elegant and a great teacher with good penmanship.
Aside from the totally foreign and often confusing alphabet (there are four different and distinct letters for subtle variations of the “d” sound, four more for “t”, and three for “s”), the eccentricities of the written language take a while to learn. It takes hours to study the frequently bizarre ways to form conjunct characters– which is a combination of consonant sounds with no vowel between, the “nct” of “conjunct” is a triple-conjunct, just as “nj” is a double– only to have exceptions introduced once you’ve embedded these rules in your mind. Please, read below:
Nepal has always been, and still is, based on the Hindu caste system, and this is reflected in the language- there are four different forms of the singular “you” (with three distinct conjugations) based on level of respect. There are SIX ways to say “he/she” (with five conjugations, two of which are used exclusively for females), based on both level of respect and whether or not the person is in the speaker’s presence (see Left photo). Learning and understanding these different pronouns slows everything down.
Stress on the value of family life is also evident in the language. There are different words for elders on your maternal and paternal sides, different words for elder/younger siblings. There are even words for your spouse’s siblings! The most ridiculous is this little gem:
Fortunately, I’ve made it past this point. I’ve learned the alphabet, all the conjuncts and pronouns, and am now working on present tense grammar. Nepali has very foreign sentence structure that goes “subject-object-verb” as opposed to English’s “subject-verb-object”. This sounds like a minor adjustment, but figuring out where to place other parts of speech is an entertaining nightmare. The sentence of “I don’t know how old he is” is written as “his age how much it is there is not knowledge to me.”
When I am studying, the kids love to watch and help me. They all speak English, so I myself feel even younger than them while I slowly sound out and read sentences, laboriously converting to English as I go. Some of the kids are especially helpful- Sundar and Dipak quiz me on my vocab lists, and Shova asks me a Nepali question every night at our family meeting. It’s felt really slow, though. I am only now, in chapter 5, learning verbs other than “to be,” so up to this point, conversation with the Aunties and Uncles has been relatively sparse. The book has also just stopped giving the roman-alphabet transliteration (e.g. uniharuko luga anautho cha! Their clothing is strange!), so now I only have straight Nepali to work with.
Studying and learning this once again reminds me of how much time we tend to waste reading worthless news stories (or people’s blogs), watching mind-numbing television, or playing video games. I’m probably worse than most people in this regard and, while I do believe non-productive down-time is a necessity, I’m determined to significantly reduce the amount of time I spend doing things that give me nothing I’ll remember a week down the road. Somehow, I’ve remained determined to learn this language. I’ll post an update from time to time on how I’m progressing.