Universally Speaking

Learning Nepali is fast and easy!  Anyone can learn this exotic language in just a few short lessons, regardless of experience or perceived level of facility with picking up new languages.  You can get started with these common expressions, spoken in everyday conversation by real Nepalis (helpful English translations in parentheses):

Relax garnus (relax)

Date fixed bhayo/bhaena (the date is/is not fixed)

Ma Nepal Red Cross Society-ko Field Supervisor ho (I’m a Field Supervisor for the Nepal Red Cross Society)

Bored laagyo? (are you bored?)

Bored feeling? (same as above)

Tension chha? (is there tension?)

Tension na garnus (don’t do tension)

Time pass hunchha (passing time)

Last time (last time)

Ekdam fast (very fast)

Ekdam high (very high)

And my all time favorite:

Last minute-maa plan change bhayo? (Can you guess this one? Great job, you got it: plans changed at the last minute?)

There are many, many more!  Don’t waste another moment, start learning Nepali today.  You’ll be amazed how similar it is to English!

Seriously though, folks.

Obviously, these are meant to be comical (though 100% real life) examples of English words and expressions that have managed to imprint themselves upon the Nepali parlance.  Nepali is actually an exceptionally difficult language to learn, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts.  But a joke any Nepal PCV will get is that you can say something entirely in English and draw blank stares, but if you add a “chha” or “bhayo” or “garnu” to the end of the sentence, suddenly everyone readily understands you.  Now, of course that’s not really true, but this phenomenon speaks to some interesting (and, depending upon your perspective, either encouraging or regrettable) truths about the world.

As I was sitting at breakfast this morning in Pokhara, trying to ease myself back into Nepal after the lavish accommodations at the resort PC that put us up in for our close-of-service conference totally ruined me for the hard mattress and no a/c that I’ll return to in my village, I noticed a group of Chinese tourists sitting at the next table (at least, they sounded like they were speaking Chinese).  The Nepali server approached to take their order, and three of them funneled their orders through a fourth girl – the only one of their group apparently who could speak English.  It’s amazing, if you really think about it.  Here were four girls from China, communicating with a man from Nepal – two countries that border each other in Asia – and the medium through which they communicated with one another was English.  I feel so fortunate to be a native English speaker.  Watching that little scene unfold, it hit me just how flat out impossible it would be to travel anywhere, really, in the world, without knowing at least some English.  English has become, for better or worse, the universal language. 

When I went to Tibet last September, I witnessed groups of tourists from all over Europe, Asia, even South America, following guides who spoke in English.  The only other language I heard guides speak (other than Chinese, of course, for the hordes of Chinese tourists who swarm the sacred sites of Tibet, like billions of grains of salt being scrubbed into a festering wound) was French.  Fitting, since French is, geographically speaking, the second most widely-spoken language in the world.  Behind English.  In tiny, rural villages on the Tibetan plateau, under the shadow of Everest (the English name, of course), we, almost incredibly, met a smattering of shop owners and others who knew a handful of words in English, even if it was just a few numbers.  Not impressed?  Raise your hand if you can count by tens to one hundred in Mandarin – or even better, Tibetan.  Anyone?  Anyone?  Bueller?  Bueller?  Bueller?

I remember a similar occurrence to the one I witnessed at the restaurant this morning from when I was eating at a restaurant in Paris.  I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation of the group of people sitting at the next table.  There were six or seven men and women, all about my age.  And I distinctly remember: one was from Germany, one from Sweden, another was Danish, and though I can’t remember which other countries were represented by that mini-EU, I do recall that none of them were countries in which English was the first language.  So what language were they chatting in?  French?  We were, after all, in Paris.  No, try again.  It was English.

Want to take a guess at how many signs in Nepal are written bilingually in Nepali and Spanish?  That would be none, except perhaps at the embassies or consulates of Spanish-speaking countries.  But even then I’m not so sure.  The sign for the Pakistani Embassy in Kathmandu is written in English and Nepali.  No Pashto or Urdu or Farsi or Arabic or whatever is the primary language of Pakistan to be found.

Some lament this inevitable effect of globalization.  I understand that sentiment.  It’s sad to see indigenous languages dying out around the globe, including at home in the U.S., as some Native American languages move closer and closer to extinction with each generation that passes away.  At the same time, English didn’t even exist (at least not in any form that would be comprehensible or even recognizable to a contemporary speaker) more than a millennium or two ago (which is not a considerable period of time in the scale of the human species and the existence of spoken language).  Languages, like culture, like all living things, evolve.  They change over time.  A number of different factors will influence how our language changes, which languages will swallow up others, which will succeed and flourish and which wind up going the way of the dodo.  Conservation is good.  Preserving heritage and passing on “endangered” languages and the cultures they represent to successive generations are desirable goals.  But I just can’t get myself worked up about the tragedy of dying languages in the same way that some of my friends do.  It’s not the same as species dying out, and changing ecosystems, and actual destruction.

My main point though is to all those fools out there who shout until they’re blue in the face, usually on conservative propaganda platforms like Fox News, about the need to make English the “official” language of the United States, to “protect” the English language, to “preserve American traditions and values”, because God forbid that immigrant kids who come to the States be allowed to study in a public school  in, say, Spanish, a language in which we have no shortage of competent and fluent teachers, so that these children – children, mind you – can continue to learn math and science and history and be able to keep up with their peers while they are also learning English, because you can’t just learn a new language overnight, and it’s not a child’s fault that his parents decided to uproot him from home and bring him – legally or not – to a brand new country where he has no friends and doesn’t understand anything and he shouldn’t be punished and deprived the basic human right to better himself through education because of laws that his parents may have broken.  But back to the morons who are so terrified that we’re all going to be speaking Mexican or Chinese or whatever someday: are you for real?  Get out and explore the world.  Come to Nepal and be reassured: English ain’t going anywhere anytime soon.  Tension chha?  Just relax garnus.  Everything will be ekdam okay.

Raamrosanga basnus



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