Sunday, April 24, 2011

Stopping My Two Words

Last week was the Nepali New Year: B.S. 2068. The schools reopened last week after a monthlong break. The books will arrive sometime this month, and there is still no class schedule. Every day new students come in to the office with their parents to be registered. About half the students are in a classroom during any given class period, and they often have to sit in the classroom unattended because the teachers are busy with meetings and data surveys.

I've been in the classroom with my counterpart a lot, though, frantically trying to complete a pen-pal project before the American schools close. When my mother came she brought with her thirty letters from public school students in Austin, Texas. I am teaching letter writing, and soon I will split the students into groups and have them respond to each letter. As usual, the biggest difficulty I find is in encouraging creative production; students are not used to coming up with their own ideas. They expect the teacher to give them the basic information and format of the letter. I do see some innovation, though, and it makes my day whenever a student adds their own words or experiments with a new phrase.

You can learn about Nepali language and letter-writing conventions by seeing how Nepali students write letters in English. Here's a typical example:

"Dear Friend,

I am fine here, I think you are also fine there. I am X. I read in 7 class. My school name is Shree Udaya Kharka Secondary School in Nepal. Nepal is very beautiful. Now I will stop my two words.

Your Friend,


- That first bit: "I am fine here, I think you are also fine there." That is a direct translation of a Nepali phrase that is commonly used at the beginning of letters. The Nepali version contains the additional word hola, which is somewhat similar to the English word 'maybe' and gives the connotation "I am well, and I hope you are well also."

- Using "I read" for "I study," "7 class" for "grade 7," and "My school name" for "My school's name" are all examples of mistakes that arise from direct translations of Nepali vocabulary and grammar. In Nepali the common word for "to study" is the same as "to read." The other two examples reflect Nepali grammar and word order.

- "Now I will stop my two words" is another literal rendering of an idiom. It makes my counterpart smile when he reads it because it is an idiom commonly used by Nepali politicians when they finish their longwinded speeches. As you might guess, it means something like "Now I've given you my two cents."

This is a good illustration to students of some of the difficulties that crop up when you begin learning a language and discover that the differences between languages go beyond vocabulary and syntax. 

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