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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Indo-European Roots

When I started this blog, I honestly thought I would be writing more about language. I was a linguistics major in college and love thinking about and trying to understand the complexities of language. So in honor of my major, I thought I would write a post about Nepali…

Nepali is part of the Indo-European language family, a big family that includes many of the languages spoken in Europe, across Afghanistan and Iran, and into parts of the India subcontinent. All of these languages from English to to Farsi to Hindi are descended from one language, what linguists call “Proto-Indo-European.” Before I started learning Nepali, although I knew that Nepali and English are distantly related, it never really meant much to me.

After I started learning Nepali, I began to see a lot of words that look very similar to English words, and this distant relationship between Nepali and English became more tangible and real to me. I learned words like naam, which means “name” and daant, which means “tooth” in English but sounds very similar to the French word for tooth, “dent,” and is related to the English word “dental.” I was talking to my grandfather about Nepali last year, and it came up that the word for “well” (as in “are you well?”) is sanchai or sancho in Nepali. He thought this might share a root with the word “sane” in English, which also in one sense means “well.” A few more of these cognates include:

manche, which means “man” or “person”

naya, which means “new”

musa, which means “mouse”

Even the word “go” in English is related to the word for “go” in Nepali. The verb for “to go” is jannu, but in the past tense, it is gae (first person, past tense), which does look very similar to “go.”

Although similar sounding words often share a root, it is not always so. To check these words that I think may be related, I use this Etymological dictionary. If you type in the English word, then it will give you its roots in older languages like Old English, Latin, and Proto-Indo-European (PIE). You may also find a note that gives the equivalent word in Sanskrit (abbreviated as Skt.), from which Nepali is descended. If the English word is related to the Sanskrit word, and the English word sounds similar to the Nepali word, then I can be pretty sure the English and Nepali words share a common root.

For one of the seminars I took during senior year of college, I had to read a book called Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us by Nicholas Evans. It’s a great read that gives a lot of fascinating facts about a lot of different languages. As I was flipping through the book, I found this quote by the author about the Nepali word lakh,

‎Hindi and other Indian languages have a unit ‘lakh,’ meaning 100,000. (The Sanskrit word laksa, from which ‘lakh’ derives, comes from the same root as the German word ‘lachs’ “salmon” and its Yiddish and now English counterpart ‘lox’; the extension to 100,000 was based on a metaphor of huge numbers of swarming salmon.

Doesn’t that just blow you away? I always thought of “lox” as a distinctly European word, but to find out that it’s origin goes beyond Europe is amazing.

I’m not sure why these remnants of that ancient, common language are so fascinating to me. I guess they remind me that it’s very likely Tri and I come from the same stock of people. We’ve had quite a few friends and family tell us that we look alike, so maybe we even share a distant ancestor 🙂

If you’re interested in this kind of thing, another fun thing to do is to check out the Romani language, spoken by the Romani people in Europe. Many believe that the Romani people originated in South Asia, and a look at their language supports that possibility.

Here’s a list of Romani phrases.

Look at the third one down, amaro baro them, meaning “our big land” or “our ancestral land.” The amaro looks an awful lot like the Nepali word hamro, meaning “our,” and the baro looks a lot like the Nepali word bado and Hindi word bada, which both mean “big.” Although the Romani people’s migration out of South Asia began over a thousand years ago, they were able to maintain their language.

For more examples from the Romani language, check out this online dictionary.