Navigating Language in the U.S.

When we first arrived in Nepal last summer, I think it took me about two months to readjust to hearing and speaking Nepali again. Although I had spent almost five months there before and spoke Nepali on a pretty regular basis with Tri while we were in the US, it was still a shock to hear so much Nepali at once.

Once I eased into the Nepali environment, I was able to start practicing and improving. The first time I was in Nepal, I was so overwhelmed. I was adjusting not only to a new language but also a new culture, living with a host family, and being away from Tri. Although I learned a lot of Nepali at that time, I didn’t pick up on many of the little things: the slang, the abbreviations, little words ( like “na” and “ni”) that are often added in for emphasis. Before, my Nepali probably sounded very stilted, but during these last months in Nepal, I had more time and energy to focus on picking up the bits and pieces that made my language sound more natural.

However, I’m in kind of a weird place with my Nepali. I understand most things being said and can respond to a lot of things, but people tend to think that I can speak more than I actually can. I’ve gotten really good at having some conversations. For instance, when I meet someone new, I can speak to them fluently about where they’re from, what they’re family is like, where I’m from, how I learned to speak Nepali, etc. I’ve mastered this basic conversational material, but problems start to arise when they think I can fluently talk about everything. If they start veering into a subject I don’t know much about or haven’t learned the Nepali vocab for, I may generally know what they’re saying, but I may not be able to respond in the right way. And when it comes to higher-order conversations or discussions about theoretical things, I get very lost. A lot of it is because I don’t recognize the words, but it’s also because I have trouble expressing myself and my thoughts in Nepali.

I’d love to get better, to learn more, to become more comfortable with the language. What I want to get better at is discussing politics or literature. Honestly, though, I don’t think that’s going to happen easily without taking a class or at least finding a teacher willing to spend time working on Nepali with me.

At this point, I don’t think I’ll get a chance to take a class and expand my Nepali in that way, but I have started trying to speak more Nepali with Tri. While we were in Nepal, Tri and I mostly spoke English to each other. I would usually need a break from a long day of hearing Nepali, so I always wanted to gab in English with him when I got home. But now that Nepali isn’t the majority language, I want to switch back to speaking with him in Nepali as much as I can.

One of the problems I face, though, is the risk of alienating others. I had a friend in college whose brother was in a relationship with a Chinese woman. They both spoke Chinese, and she used to speak to him in Chinese in front of my friend’s family. Her family didn’t like it. The US is particularly negative towards languages other than English, and I always feel a little worried when we say something to each other in Nepali while others are listening. I wish I didn’t have to feel that way. And if we ever have kids, I wouldn’t want to pass on that anxiety to them. I wouldn’t want to give them the message that speaking Nepali is something to be ashamed of. I don’t know. Maybe I should just relax about it and get in the practice when possible, even if others are around. I’d be interested to hear from others who speak a minority language with their family or friends…

What methods do you use to keep your language skills up? Do you feel anxiety about speaking it in front of others? What do you do about it?


6 thoughts on “Navigating Language in the U.S.

  1. Hey you’re in the US, it seems like! Welcome back! Hope you’re having a sweet family time and enjoying being in your motherland. : ) i understand your concerns your families/friends might not appreciate it when you talk to Tri in nepali. i think just when you are in person with anyone, including your families, it would be better to speak the common language just so that everyone can feel involved in the interaction. if i meet my korean friends who can speak english and American friends altogether, then i speak english so we don’t leave anyone out of the conversation.. btw, i miss you, Zoe! how long are you going to be in the US? : )

    • You’re right. Speaking a common language makes sense when you’re in a social setting, at dinner or something. But what about when you’re just hanging out around other people. For instance, if I’m at home when my family is around, even if we aren’t doing anything specific together, would it be weird if Tri said something to me in Nepali? I think it would be okay because my family doesn’t mind, but what about with other people? So many questions!

      Anyway, we’re here for good! At least for a long time 🙂

  2. Aww, Zoe, I have THE EXACT SAME problem. I can’t discuss higher concept topics in the least, and I”m even losing my grip on my regular conversational Malayalam now that I’m away from my family. I try to speak when I’m at home. It seems like a chore sometimes because I can’t convey what I want to and sound like a child, but it’s worth it for upkeep.

    I always speak just among other speakers. I definitely think it’s a little rude to speak entirely in M in front of non-speakers…though if I meet a speaker randomly in St. Louis, I’ll chat with them a little bit before switching to English.

    I’ve found the best conversations for upping vocabulary are in public settings when you encounter things you normally wouldn’t. My dad would always fill in imagined conversations for people on the train or when we would go shopping together. That was kind of a fun way to be introduced to new vocab.

    • I know how you feel…people always tell m I sound like a kid when I’m speaking Nepal. haha oh well. That’s a great way to improve vocab! Something I sorely need to do.

  3. If I ever get to the point where I feel comfortable having day to day conversations in Nepali, I’ll be really happy. I still hold out hope, but it’s frustrating.

    I think you mentioned you might be going to grad school in Boston? I think Harvard occasionally has Nepali classes. Perhaps you could take some credits for your program there and practice your language?

    When/if we have kids I am adamant that I want them to learn Nepali. Children soak up language like a sponge and it would seem like a waste otherwise… but I know my family already has that anxiety that when people around them are speaking Nepali they “must” be talking behind their backs about something– it doesn’t occur to them that the conversation is benign. I’m sure it would be confusing for a kid to speak English with some family members and Nepali with others. But I’m hopeful that our Nepali friends who are starting to have kids will help build a Nepali social network for our kids, and hopefully there will be enough positive influences. We will see.

    • Unfortunately Nepali credits won’t count towards what I’m planning on getting a masters in, so I don’t think I could justify spending so much money on a class without it going towards my masters, but I wonder if I could audit…definitely something to look into.

      It’s really great that you guys have a Nepali community around where you are. I hope Tri and I can someday find a place to settle where there’s a Nepali community. Most things I’ve read about language in kids suggests that they are heavily influenced by peers in their language preferences. If there are other kids in your community speaking Nepali, your kids have a good chance of retaining their Nepali too.

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