When Tri’s parents came to the US for his college graduation in 2009, they brought me a little kid’s book used for learning first letters in Devanagari (the script used to write Nepali, Hindi, and other South Asian languages). Tri worked through some of the activities in that book with me, and I did learn how to spell my name in Devanagari, but I really didn’t soak in much.
When I was studying abroad, we were supposed to learn Devanagari along with our Nepali language lessons. I put in effort at first; I wrote my characters slowly but diligently, but after a few lessons, I quickly fell irritated with it. Unlike Nepali language, which I loved going to class for, I just couldn’t motivate myself to really learn Devanagari. And honestly, I think trying to learn Devanagari brought back some memories of learning to read and write as a kid, two things I really struggled with. Eventually, I came to love both, but those memories of struggle haunted me while I was tracing those unfamiliar characters.
As time passed in Nepal, I came to realize that it was important for me to know at least some Devanagari, especially when I was more on my own during my independent study project. It was useful when reading signs and trying to navigate areas in the city.
And, frankly, it’s a neat writing system. In Devanagri, in the vast majority of cases, each character represents one sound. There are a few exceptions. For instance, the character व can sometimes be pronounced “buh” and sometimes “wuh.” There are also a few characters that share sounds. For instance श, ष, and स can all, in some instances, be pronounced “suh.” However, that kind of thing is unusual in Devanagari, which makes learning to read and recognize sounds easier than learning to read in English. In English one letter can represent two different sounds and one sound can have multiple representations. For instance, you have to learn that the “g” is pronounced differently in “green” versus “gender” or that the cluster “ck” makes the same sound as “k” or that for some strange reason “ph” is pronounced like an “f.”
Despite Devanagari’s uniformity, I’ve never been fully motivated to learn to read and write Nepali, and I think the main reason doesn’t actually have to do with the writing system but instead has to do with the way that written Nepali works.
When we were still in Nepal, Tri got a section of the newspaper out that featured a kid’s story about a lizard and a squirrel. In an attempt to encourage me to practice my Devanagari reading skills, he gave it to me, but it was no use.
The major problem I run into with written Nepali is that it’s so different from spoken Nepali. For starters, the verb conjugation in written Nepali is very different from spoken Nepali. I guess that spoken Nepali has gravitated away from written Nepali. I don’t know the history of it, but it’s really confusing! In addition, many of the words in written Nepali are words I’ve never once heard before in spoken Nepali. It makes reading very slow and difficult. It’s frustrating to try and decipher something written for beginner readers and have to ask Tri about almost every other word. A few paragraphs after starting that little article about the lizard and chipmunk, I got fed up and stuffed it into a drawer. Clearly not the right attitude to take when learning something new.
Will I ever need to know how to read and write in Nepali? Probably not. But it would definitely be nice! and could open up a whole new world of books, newspapers, and magazines. Recently I’ve been reading more of Zen Habits, a neat blog my dad introduced me to a few years ago. Leo Babauta, the author there, has recently written about ways to cultivate habits. One thing he suggests is doing something that you want to turn into a habit for just 1 to 2 minutes a day. Once you’ve done that for a month or more, you can bump up the time. Maybe I can try to practice my Devanagari for just a few minutes every day for a month. It may not get me far, but if I can make it a habit and turn it into something that I look forward to doing every day, then at least maybe I’ll be on the right track.