How little I know

a sabbath rest, day -5

We had our Nepali lesson Saturday, and our teacher had us listen to a newscast on YouTube.

I had no idea what they were talking about, at least not from what they said. Sure I knew a few words, maybe a pronoun or two. But I couldn’t tell what they were talking about. (I do know the word for about, by the way—kobarremaa.)

It was confusing. The newscaster was interviewing a guy and held up a book, so I assumed they were talking about the guy’s book. But I never heard the word book. It turns out there is another word for book besides the one I knew.

But even if they had used the word I knew I wouldn’t have recognized it, since the interviewer spoke as rapidly as Groucho Marx or Robin Williams on a roll. In a language, I don’t know. Actually, I should have picked up on the topic because our teacher pointed out they used a word I knew: raajniti, or politics. But what’s three syllables you know in a torrent of ones you don’t?

I have to say it was disheartening, after spending so much time and money on private lessons. The year was 2020, however, and I had a few complications, like Covid-19. But as soon as our visas come through we’ll be off, possibly within a month. And I felt very unready.

I’m adjusting my expectations. I never expected to become fluent in the 9 months we’ve been working at it, or even in the 5 months we plan to be there. And I suppose there is some value to conscious incompetence as opposed to false confidence. But at this point, I’ll be happy if I can have a slow conversation with a very patient Nepali by the time we get back. Fluency will probably take a few more trips than I’d planned.

Fortunately, I do know how to say “please say that again slowly.” I even know the order to say it: “again slowly say please; pheri bistaari bhanus.” But I couldn’t write it, since I haven’t even started learning the alphabet.

So, here are the new and improved goals:

  1. Be able to tell what a conversation is about, even when I’m not part of it.
  2. Be able to read and pronounce Nepali words, even if I don’t know what they mean.
  3. Be able to talk about weather, health, food and money with Nepali friends who are willing to speak very slowly.
  4. Know two or more words for “book.”
  5. Offer a prayer or benediction in Nepali, even if I write it out beforehand.
  6. Plan another trip, so I get better at it.

And here is my plan to meet the goals:

  • Review all my vocabulary words before we go. Many times.
  • List in one place and review all the structure rules I’ve learned, like how to combine sentences. (Who needs a subordinating conjunction when all you have to do it is add another two or three syllables to, between or instead of the conjugation you’ve already learned?)
  • List and review all the idioms we’ve learned.
  • Find a tutor when we get there to work on the alphabet and reading.
  • Continue lessons when we return.

Nepali is a complex language, with verb and noun endings that account for function, status, tense, gender and more.But I know how to ask where the bathroom is.

It’s a start.

This is a series about an upcoming academic sabbatical in Nepal. It begins here:

Share your own stories about learning a new language in the comments below. Tips and encouragement welcome.

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