May 20, 2012

Picking Up Nepali Language

Picking up a language is fun. It's like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, except that the pieces are words, phrases and grammatical structure of the language you're trying to learn. If written form of the language has a different script, that adds a new layer of challenge and fun.

According to the Flow theory, one enters a blissful state of mind called "flow" or complete focused motivation when the challenge at hand matches one's skill level. I felt the same while picking up Nepali. The Nepali language and my mother language, Bangla, has a common ancestor, Sanskrit. The two languages share some words in exact same or slightly altered form. The alteration usually follows a pattern. Last but not least, they have similar grammatical structure, derived from Sanskrit of course. So I had sufficient base skill to start with. Having that said, this beautiful language posed some real good challenges as well.

First of all, they use a different script called Devanagari. But wait, it's not entirely alien to me. I could recognize some letters of Devanagari script. My reading skill was polished during the one week stay on my first trip to Nepal. I read everything I could; traffic sign, billboards, license plates, money, receipts, beer bottles and what not. When I was going back to Bangladesh after a week, I could read Devanagari better than ever.

The second challenge was to cope up with dialects from different parts of Nepal. Intonations of the spoken language clearly varies from one part of the country to another. Sometimes the names of things change too. This is actually common in South Asia. In the tiny country of Bangladesh, we have dialects varying so much that when people from a certain area speak, others find it hilarious. Sometimes, I found Nepali to be hilarious too. The intonations in general reminded me of the dialects of northern part of Bangladesh. Point of curious exploration for a linguist.

This is what a Nepali might mean by saying "river"
The third and most significant challenge was to stop thinking with my Bangla speaking mind. Even after building up reading skills, gaining a moderate sized vocabulary, and going past the intonation variations, I was still lacking something. I just could not seem to gain the level of fluency when the language becomes instinctive response to a situation. This hurdle was not something new for me, I've faced it before in Malaysia, but could not overcome.

Then a realization dawned on me. I'm trying to translate everything to Bangla and categorize the Nepali words/phrases with their equivalent Bangla ones. But that was a mistake, because languages evolve to address the most important communication issues of their people, which in turn are influenced by their geography, lifestyle and other human factors. Thus every language is a different interpretation of the observed world, a different cognitive mapping. They can be similar, but never quite the same. While the common ancestor has given a large set of words to share and almost same grammatical structure, people have used them as readily available tools to draw pictures of what they saw in the world they live in. A Nepali and a Bangali don't refer to the same thing whey they say "Hill", neither do they refer to the same thing when they say "River". This is the fluid aspect of languages, different languages drawing different pictures.

I progressed leaps and bound after this realization. Functioning conversations with Nepali men and women in the villages became frequent. This brought more bonding at different levels and kinds. With that came deeper understanding of their lives and world view. I wish I had realized this in Malaysia, I could have had a better understanding of the Malay people and their country. But well, it's better late than never and Malaysia or the Malays are (hopefully) not disappearing any time soon, they can be revisited.