Life & Style

Drinking in the Nepali language

  • A month into learning Nepali, this ‘kuire’ reflects on his learning
- Thomas Heaton, Kathmandu

Mar 9, 2019-

As a ‘kuire’ living in Nepal, the Nepali language has always been something I know I should learn. Having spent six months of 2018 in Kathmandu, the fact I could only master and muster ‘raksi dinusna’ and ‘arko euta’ was my shame. I was unable to rely on some osmotic process to learn Nepali as I hoped, and have done with Latin dialects. I was left performing embarrassing sets of charades to communicate and paying far too much on unnecessarily expensive taxi rides. The result was feeling like just another one of those kuires, expecting all of Nepal to speak English, which was far from what I wanted.

Informally, and definitely not by osmosis, I slowly learnt the numbers —sort of—to stop getting ripped off by taxi drivers (I don’t think it worked). I got the hang of some, but ask me the number 17 and I’ll probably say ‘das saht’, ask me 83 and my face will turn a shade of lapsi candy. I later learned little phrases that proved useful, such as ‘pherri bhannus”, ‘mahango cha! Gataunuus na?’, ‘yo ke ho?’, or ‘ek chin’.

But, as I came to understand, this was not enough to solicit anything other than Nepali chuckles. So, about one month ago, I mustered the courage to look for classes. Finding reputable Nepali teachers in Kathmandu must reflect the demand—which I assume is, unfortunately, pitiful—because they are not easy to find.

Google is not really much help, even if Nepalis might say the language is easy and you can learn with them. The goodwill is wonderful, don’t get me wrong, but a Nepali teacher is very different from someone teaching you swear words and how to order another beer—I did that already, and it didn’t work that well. Making the most of my weak-threaded Nepali expat network, I found people who had actually learned. It was through them that I was able to find something. There were classes in Boudha, which may as well have been in Pokhara, but there was one closer to me. I started classes, twice a week in Ekantakuna, setting about learning how to speak. I haven’t yet bothered with the writing, because I realise that’s like opening Pandora’s Box. But I think I will reassess once I can actually interview someone entirely in Nepali.

I started with the basics: ‘my name is’, ‘my home is’, and ‘where is your home?’ Then came the ever-scintillating conversations regarding pens, bags and books: ‘yo kaapi ho, tyo mero kitaab ho’, ‘yo wahaa ko jhola ho?’

I have to say, blowing my own linguistic trumpet, I started well. Perhaps running off the fumes of the raksi I once successfully ordered last year, I learnt the informal future and present tenses, and the basic past tense.

The words stayed with me, and I slowly came to understand the sentence structure and the nuances of pronunciation. But, then, ma adkiye.

My learning came to a screeching halt, when I was gallantly telling people I was studying Nepali. “Nepali piune”, I would say with swagger. It was then I took a hefty and hot cup of humility, realising to study or read is actually padhnu. Similar things happened with basnu, bolnu, bhannu and bechnu. People must have wondered how odd it was that this big, bald foreigner was telling them he drank Nepali.

My swift swagger became a shy saunter. My pride left me barely able to string a sentence together. I grappled with the idea of a verb being at the end of a sentence, and that so much of the language is passive. Don’t get me wrong, I can say I went somewhere or that I enjoy alu tama and gundruk, but ask me more and I’ll falter.

My Nepali teacher, bless her soul, knew how to reinvigorate me. We focused on food, and I was able to bring a sentence together relatively quickly. Ask me about food and I’ll chew your ear off in Nepali, like I do khana: with fervour. Food rolls off my tongue now.

I now watch plenty of food videos on YouTube, to keep me learning, while I insist on speaking Nepali at restaurants, in taxis, and wherever else I get the chance to. I flick through my stack of multi-coloured flash cards whenever I can. Divided into verbs, adjectives and nouns, I am slowly getting my Nepali mojo back. The stack is about half learnt thus far, but I know there’s another stack waiting once I can deal with them. The encouragement of my teacher helps too, but I can see she knows I’m faltering and getting frustrated. Language is not something that can be learnt quickly or that easily.

All the while, learning the language is a pursuit worth embarking on. Because once you’re able to speak Nepali, I think, you’re no longer an observer but part of the landscape. From my experience in speaking other languages, it is a key to enjoying a country. For, it’s the people that are most enjoyable in any culture, but it’s an arrogant and unfair assumption that so many people make, expecting all of Nepal to speak English. Perhaps it is best for us all to drink in the Nepali language, no matter how long we kuires are lucky enough to stay for. 

Published: 09-03-2019 09:01

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