The Multilingual Norm

I grew up in a monolingual home in an area where the majority of people were monolingual. In sixth grade, I started my first French class and enjoyed it a lot, but I never expected to use what I learned outside of the classroom. I wasn’t interested in foreign exchange programs to French-speaking countries and never talked to anyone in French outside of my classes. Languages were considered difficult to master by most people around me, and there was a prevailing attitude in my school and among my peers that we wouldn’t ever be able to speak the languages we were learning that well or actually need to.

A few years ago, I was really happy to hear that the school district I went through has started offering language classes before the sixth grade. They’ve also added at least one non-European language, Mandarin, to the list of available courses. And I imagine their attitudes towards second (and for some students third or forth) language learning have changed a bit. But those efforts were too late for me. I had to learn a second language through other routes and learn to appreciate multilingualism on my own.

At that point in my life, I doubted I’d ever have the opportunity to become proficient in a second language, let alone use it in my daily life. That changed when I met Tri. Our first-date anniversary is coming up, so I’ve been reflecting on those first few months of getting to know him. I still remember the very first Nepali word that he taught me: khatraak-khutruk. I kind of can’t believe he taught me that one as a first word because it was particularly hard for me to pronounce with the Nepali ‘r’s in it, but I made him repeat it again and again and would pop into his room to practice it with him. It’s an onomatopoeia that means “stuff” (sometimes this type of word is called an “expressive” because some people limit the definition of onomatopoeia to words that represent sound, whereas this one is used to things or the state of things). If you look around a room and see lots of little things, maybe covering the ground, potentially in a chaotic state, you might say, “This room is filled with katraak-kutruk.”

That first word was the start of my Nepali language learning, which has been one of the most rewarding and at times, the most frustrating projects I’ve ever started. I’ve been meaning to write a post about the process of learning Nepali, but I wanted to talk about living in a multilingual environment, why I enjoy it, and how that has changed the way I look at language and fluency.

As many of you know, Nepal is a highly multilingual place where people speak languages that are part of at least two major language families (Indo-European and Tibeto-Burman). You really see this multilingualism in action here. On a daily basis, I hear at least three languages being spoken around me: English, Nepali, and Hindi. But I also hear Newari (or Newa Bhasha) pretty often, and I hear Maithali every once in a while. (Maithali is an Indo-European language spoken in Southern Nepal). When outside of Kathmandu, you can often hear an even greater variety of languages on a day-to-day basis. When I lived with my Sherpa host family, I would speak English with my friends, Nepali with my host family, wake up to my family chatting away in Sherpa, and listen in on my neighbors conversing in Tamang.

Being in a multilingual environment was definitely difficult for me at first. When I came to Nepal in summer of 2009, I had a rough time learning the new sounds and expressing myself in a foreign tongue. I didn’t start to feel comfortable with it until the end of my time here in December of 2009. But now that I’m back here and my Nepali is a bit better this time around, things are easier, and I’ve been able to enjoy the multilingualism more. Before, I was struggling to understand the simplest of words and on top of that, trying to adjust to life in a new culture. And I still feel awkward sometimes speaking in Nepali; on some days, I just can’t get my tongue around those sounds, and everything I say comes out jumbled. I also can’t easily express complex thoughts or feelings in my second language, but I understand most everything that’s said to me and can say most things I want to. That has made living here much easier. It’s also allowed me to start paying attention to and learning a little bit of at least one of the other languages spoken in Nepal.

When I was in high school, I dreamed about studying abroad in India and learning Hindi. I don’t know why I wanted to learn Hindi in particular, but for some reason, it seemed like an interesting language to learn. I’ve loved learning Nepali and I don’t regret studying Nepal one bit, but I still have that itch to learn Hindi. Lucky for me, there are lots of Hindi speakers in Nepal, so I’ve been able to pick up some of it here and there. Since we’ve moved into this new house, we’ve had a lot of workers in and out setting things up, doing last minute construction, and many of them are from either Southern Nepal or India. They often speak Hindi with each other. I can understand a lot from knowing the context and by recognizing words that are the same or similar to ones in Nepali. My brother-in-law also speaks to me in Hindi sometimes. He’s quite good and learned mostly from TV and film. He does it to joke around, and although sometimes I get irritated because I can’t understand him! I do appreciate it 🙂

Multilingualism is omnipresent in Nepal. Most people speak at least two languages and many people speak three or more. Although that’s almost unimaginable to me, and especially was to my high school self, I’ve found that multillingual communities often have a different definition for “knowing a language” that makes multilingualism seem less of a hurtle. When I was growing up, fluency seemed like an unatainable dream. But what I’ve come to understand is that “fluency” and whatever that means doesn’t matter when learning a language. If language is about communication, then the most important thing is to make yourself understood, whether or not you use perfect grammar, whether or not you have great pronunciation. And many people here, when they say they “know a language,” they don’t mean that they know every part of it, that they can say everything that they might every want to say in that language; they mean that they can communicate. This new definition of “knowing a language” (new for me at least) is good news for us second language learners. When I realized that ability to communicate, not fluency was the goal I was aiming for, my life got so much easier! Most of you are probably rolling your eyes and saying, yeah, we knew that ages ago, but for me, it was a such a revelation. It has changed the way I look at language and language learning and made me much less self-concious about how I sound when I speak Nepali. This in turn has allowed me to relax and just enjoy the process of learning, rather than worry about the details.

The other thing that I just love about being around many languages is getting to listen to them. It’s even better when I don’t understand what’s being said. Languages all have their unique quirks and can differ significantly in the sounds they make use of, and I love just sitting in a room, forgetting about trying to understand what is being said and instead listening to how it’s being said. In college, I remember enjoying my Phonetics and Phonology class which dealt with sound systems and how sounds are produced and used in language. However, I still can’t pinpoint the reason why I enjoyed it and why I like listening to speech sounds. But getting the opportunity to be around so many languages and listen to them is definitely one thing I’ve loved about being in Nepal.

There’s this stereotype about Americans that we’re all monolingual and don’t think multilingualism is all that important. While it’s just a stereotype and there are plenty of people who defy that stereotype, there’s some truth to it too. However, now that the United States’ position in the world is changing and more people are acknowledging the reality of globalization, I think this attitude towards language is changing. There are so many benefits that come with striving towards multilingualism and living in a multilingual environment. I don’t know what linguistic direction the US will take. But at the very least, if I do have kids, I hope I can provide them with linguistic opportunities from a young age and encourage them to appreciate multilingualism in a way that I couldn’t until I was an adult.

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25 thoughts on “The Multilingual Norm

  1. I went about it the opposite way…

    I took French in middle/high school, and Swahili, Arabic and French in my freshman year of college. I got to a reasonable level of communication and understanding skill in both French and Swahili after spending a semester abroad in France and Kenya. Then I had space available in my academic program in my senior year to either graduate early or do a third study abroad, and since Nepal wasn’t available at our school, but India was, I signed up for the India program. I studied the alphabet pretty diligently the summer before I went to the country, but knowing a handful of Nepali kept messing me up in Hindi. I tried really hard while I was there, but I was frustrated by the classes–the teachers didn’t seem to be teaching in a way that made the most sense to the way I learned languages–and I was frustrated because I felt that French and Swahili were so much easier, and I was frustrated P had to speak a language in this family of languages rather than one I already had a basis for. I learned quite a bit of Hindi during that semester, and still recognize a lot of words when I watch a Bollywood movie, but I still struggled to communicate above a very basic level upon my return. When I came back from India the Hindi I learned just messed up the Nepali I wanted to learn. Even today I’ll sometimes try to say something and feel really confident that I think I know it and after I say it P tells me, “That’s Hindi, not Nepali.”

    My Nepali language learning has been abysmal. I’m really ashamed. I’m surrounded by people who always tell me I should try to speak, but I feel so intimidated, because at this point I feel kind of stupid that I can’t say much. I understand a lot more than I can say, but I still flub up the basics. I deeply wish there was a class I could take somewhere locally so that I could at least have a place to properly start. Learning Nepali is one of the reasons I really would like to live in Nepal for at least a year or two at some point. I feel like I’ll never properly learn how to speak unless I am there everyday. And I LONG for a time when our group of Nepali friends can sit together speaking Nepali and I can banter away with them.

    • You speak so many languages C! 😀 Most people would love to be that multilingual! When we were in the US, I used to have Nepali-only nights/days with Tri so that I could practice. Sometimes I would get irritated (especially at night when I was sleepy) because I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but it helped me a lot. The other thing is that I sounded horrible when I first started learning. I’m sure everyone does. But that’s okay. Even if you mess up, it doesn’t matter. I really think that when it comes to language learning, you’ve got to make the mistakes before you can learn.

      I don’t know if this reflects well on me or not, but the other thing I’ve done to learn Nepali is act kind of like a kid. People have infinite patience for their children when they’re learning to speak, but not as much for adults. For some reason, people think of me as very young (maybe it has something to do with marrying at a young age), and I’ve definitely played it up and I think it has increased others’ patience with me. When I make a mistake, they think it’s cute rather than stupid. And rather than walking away, they try to help me fix my mistake.

      The other thing is that most Nepalis I know are very excited when I say anything at all in Nepali. It’s not too often that foreigners learn Nepali, so even a Namaste from me can be a big deal. This is great for us foreigners who want to learn because it’s very encouraging. This has also made me feel more okay with making mistakes.

      So I guess the main thing is, even if you mess up, keep speaking. We all sound ridiculous sometimes, but there’s no shame in it!

      • I know I can’t be afraid to make mistakes, and I have to get over my inhibitions about it or I’ll truly never learn… but sometimes I feel like I’ve been with P so long I’ve passed the “it’s cute she made a mistake, but at least she’s trying” stage.

        For instance, P’s family never means to make me feel bad, but when they ask me something complicated and I don’t follow I’ve seen P’s dad sigh heavily and say, “She’s never going to learn.” And I’ve had other friends say, “If Nepali was really that important for you to learn, you would have tried harder and been further along by now. Obviously it’s not your priority.” I can certainly try harder, but I feel more discouraged than supported in my en devour sometimes. I guess that’s why I feel that if I’m in Nepal I could enroll in a local language class and at least practice with a teacher and build some confidence back.

        I should try Nepali language night once night a week. The funny thing is, of the two of us I talk way more, so if conversation falls on P during Nepali night, it’s going to be a quiet evening 😉

  2. This was a really interesting post and something I’ve always wanted to write about. I am very fond of languages myself. Being brought up in a multi-lingual society I guess thought it was normal to be able to pick up a few languages but I mainly thought that I got my mother’s genes because she could speak six languages.. and I turned out to be able to speak nine now. Nepali being the recent addition. Keen interest in linguistics enables me to pick up the dialect just by being in the company of a certain community of people speaking the same language. I studied Arabic and French in school from year one until I finished high school but that never really helped. We had two classes per week and even though my grammar and reading/writing was polished the colloquial never got a chance. I always dreamed of going to France to use my French. I still wish I go there someday. I made a pen-friend to keep from forgetting my grammar. I purposely watch movies or listen to songs based in languages that I don’t get to practise much so that I keep from forgetting them. I have absolutely no communication in Nepali these days except for the few words me and A quip in during our conversations but then we use English a lot too so it doesn’t help. Therefore I chat in Nepali particularly with any Nepalese friends I have online, so that I can keep brushing my skills and I watch movies and listen to songs carefully. I become very diligent when it comes to languages, and my old friends keep saying that my Nepali keeps getting better everytime they talk to me afterwhile. It feels great! 🙂
    P.s- I really hope you get to learn Hindi. You really seem so fond of it.

      • Thanks Zoe, I re-read your post and it reminded me of my first word in Nepali that A taught me (because I wanted to use it on him).. “kamna lagne” meaning “useless” hehe. 😀

  3. Post vraiment très intéressant !
    Reading “khatraak-khutruk” made me straight think about we say it in french : “bric-à-brac”.. i think it’s very difficult to pronounce for a foreigner so very funny to hear for the native french speakers!
    I totally agree with you when you say nepalese are impressed when foreigners, not speak, but just try to speak nepali ! i remember my ex-bf’s father’s face when i started to try to speak nepali, he was smiling like i rarely saw him smiling, and he was keeping me repeating and repeating words till my pronounciation was almost perfect!

    • Thank you Marine! 🙂 There are a lot of onomatopoeia/expressives in Nepali and many of them appear in a reduplicated form (like katraak-kutruk). And there are a few in English too like helter-skelter or nick-nacks (and others). In English we say bric-a-brac too! I didn’t realize it came from French. I find the whole topic fascinating, and I wrote a paper on it last year for one of my ling classes. There’s been quite a bit of research about reduplication and expressives in other South Asian languages, although not as much about Nepali.

      • I’ve been fascinated with reduplication too. I’ve written three posts – one on wordwords (my coinage to mean words with the same syllable repeated, like murmur in English), Bengali rhyming slang where I compare Bengali to Cockney rhyming slang and the comme-ci-comma-cas another coinage of words with that pattern. Again I kinda thought it was just Bengali. I don’t find I can understand a word of Hindi so I thought that a lot of the features of Bengali were particular to it, but I’m realising they seem to be features of other S Asian languages too!

        The three posts are listed under Word of the Week
        http://mybangladiary.wordpress.com/word-of-the-week/

        Khalikhali and the wordword

        Khocmoc and Bengali Rhyming Slang

        Majhamajhi and the comme-ci-comme-ca

  4. “And many people here, when they say they “know a language,” they don’t mean that they know every part of it, that they can say everything that they might every want to say in that language; they mean that they can communicate.” Absolutely.
    Most people in India can communicate in 3 languages minimum. Our education system is like that – we have a first, second and 3rd language right from kindergarden:).. but people also pickup languages of the state they are working in. For me these have been English, hindi, tamil and kannada. French had interested me as a foreign language and I think I can manage. And am going to be married to a family that speaks another – konkani – hoping to learn it soon.
    Multi-lingualism has been found to aid children’s intellect growth and handling different situations.

    • It must be so nice to be so multilingual! The thing about South Asia is that a lot of the languages are closely related, so picking up Hindi would be much easier for me now that I know Nepali than it would have been before I learned Nepali. Although Tamil and Kannada in a different language family…are they pretty similar to each other? Or very different?

      • Tamil and kannada are part of the dravidian languages.. tamil being the oldest. the four south indian languages are quite similar.. But konkani (spoken in Goa, south kanara) is a mix of marathi, hindi, sanskrit and kanada.. total mix:)..

  5. I learned Spanish in school, but didn’t start until the 7th grade because it wasn’t offered to younger students. I love learning Nepali, the Hindi does through me off. I’ve been told, “that’s not Nepali, that’s Hindi” too. I’ve also heard “that’s not Nepali, that’s Newari” though very rarely. I wish I had more practice with Nepali, but the university nearby does offer Nepali courses and one day I may just have to enroll.

    • That’s fantastic that the university near you offers Nepali classes. Are you in the US? There are so few Nepali classes available there. There are a lot of overlaps between Hindi and Nepali, so learning one after you learn the other wouldn’t be too bad. And I guess there must be some overlaps between Newari and Nepali because of their close proximity. I only know a few Newari words, one being “kha,” which apparently means something like the Nepali “ho” or “yes” in English. So if anyone asks me anything in Newari, I always respond with “kha” and pretend that I can understand. 🙂

      • yeah, that’s when i get told i’m speaking newari because i’ll say “kha” rather than “ho”. usually if i’m going to be affirmative in nepali, i say hajur, just because i like the way it sounds, not out of any formality. i recently learned you can just say either a or la, but i can’t remember which one is which so i avoid those.
        yes I’m in the US and it thrills me to NO END that our local university offers nepali. i’m looking into the starting in the spring quarter in march. may have to pay out of state tuition tho, because i’m new here. but it would be great to finally get some conversational practice 🙂
        ps, did u figure out to follow/subscribe yet?

    • I’m replying to your comment that’s below…yeah, you can also say “la” which means something like “okay,” although it’s very informal. I always go with “hajur” with older ppl but usually say “huncha” with friends and family. And “haas” when I’m agreeing to do something and trying to be more formal. There are so many ways of saying yes/okay in Nepali! 🙂

      I still haven’t figured out how to follow/subscribe to your blog. Is there a place I can enter my email to get updates about your posts?

  6. Wow looks like all the people in this blog comment know so many languages. I am not multilingual so only know English and Nepali. I used to speak Newari with my grand ma but after she passed away, I have noone to speak with. With Hindi, I am beginner as I still don’t understand humour of Bollywood movies. I study Sanskrit while in school but forgot most of it.

    • I love listening to Newari even more than Nepali. If you ever want to teach someone to speak with, I will be MORE THAN happy to practice. Its seriously like singing instead of talking. At least, Newari sounds musical to me.

      • I am thinking to put a tab on learn Newari in my blog. I am teaching my husband bit of newari now (even he is Newar, he doesn’t know Newari language). It is helping me a bit to practice Will be so happy to have someone else who can help me practice. Do u know any word ?

  7. I really only know Kha = Yes Bau = Dad Macha = girl Oh and I know “chiya dunay du na?” that’s most of my Newari knowledge. When i started Nepali, I first learned the different levels of you, I, who, what, when, where, why, and how to say things are or are not. Like “Mero naam ke hun” or “Yo kitab ho”. I’m still pretty simple on my language as it took forever to work on the alphabet. I feel like a 3 year old, but at least its progress. Perhaps, I can look back on some of my Nepali journals and just start translating into Newari from there. I’d LOVE to learn more. 🙂

  8. My mom tells me kamna lagne bacha every time i get a “B” or do something wrong. I must hear it 5 times a day.

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