I remember clearly a programme I was watching on TV in the 70s. The living goddess Kumari was being paraded through the streets of Kathmandu. Nepal in those days was still emerging from the cultural heritage of the 18th century; and to see a young, pre-pubescent girl deified as a virgin goddess and being worshiped was really, for me, beyond the wildest dreams of Kew…
In the late seventies I had the chance to work as a volunteer in Birganj, a busy, bustling town on the border with India, unbearably hot in the summer months and sub-tropical in the winter. Outside of the confines of the campus where I taught post-graduate students the art of teaching English, there was very little opportunity to communicate with the locals except in their own language, Nepali. So I ventured out onto the streets and the bazaar and learned a kind of bastardised version of the language, a mixture really of Hindi, Bhojpuri and Nepali.
Only when on leave in Kathmandu six months after the beginning of my sojourn did I discover from a local shopkeeper that my language was a mish mash of the local tongues in Birganj: Thas no Nepali, he laughed, thas all mix up mix up.
But the real faux pas happened when I returned to the classroom and decided to show off my skill in the local language with my students. You must learn English, I instructed them, little realising that the transposition of the first letter of the verb to learn had metamorphosed my meaning to, You must fornicate with the English, but in a much less formal context.
While I continued to wonder why the students were laughing at me throughout the lesson, my mistake was discreetly pointed out to me by a sympathetic student at the end of the session.
Altogether, I was there for two and a half years and enjoyed trekking to remote areas and villages. Slowly, the language barriers fell away and the simplified speech of the locals made it easy for me to communicate as little use was made of tenses and gender. This was a relief because in formal Nepali there are seven forms of pronoun, depending on whom you are talking to, with corresponding positive and negative and male and female verb endings which change with the tense used, the saving grace being that none of the verbs are irregular as in English.
Did I enjoy the experience of learning a foreign language? Well, I went on to do a post-graduate scholarship course in Nepalese culture with my Guru, Professor Chudamani Bhandu, a lexicographer, from whom I learned there are 122 languages – not dialects – spoken in Nepal as the mother tongue. Most of the students I was teaching were at least tri-lingual and I can only say I was relieved to know that Nepali or Gorkhali as it is also known is the official language of the country.
But my time in the Department of Culture at Kirtipur Campus in Kathmandu was not wasted as I went on to translate Laxmi Prasad Devkota’s poetry, a poet who is considered to be the bard of Nepal.
I have been back to the country many times and find that I can still communicate with the locals. I’ve tried my hand at other European languages but for some reason in France they think I’m German and in Germany they think I’m French – oh, and they don’t understand a word I try to say in French or German.
The main things I’ve found out about learning a foreign language are start young, begin with the skills of listening and talking and live in the country!
This short article was originally written for The Clarion, a University of the Third Age magazine.