Thursday, July 7, 2011

Describing Heaven to the Ruler of the Sky


     Don't judge a book by its cover.

     The early bird gets the worm.

     The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.


     अफू तक्छु मूडो, बन्चरो ताक्छ घुँो ।
     aphu takchhu muDo, bancharo takchha ghunDo
     I aim for the log, but the ax aims for my knee.

     धन देखदा महादेवको पनी तिन नेत्र ।
     dhan dhekda mahadevko pani tin netra
     Seeing wealth, even God opens three eyes.

     आकाशको फल आँख तरी मर
     aakasko phal ankha tari mara
     The eyes die staring at the fruit in the sky.


     न्हि बिसाम छामे थोबोरी बिसाम रा मे ।
     nhi bisaam chaame thobori bisaam ra me
     The woman is beautiful but her head is full of lice.

     आमा आबाला माया जामे काला रि जामे ओला रि मन युम्बा फिरी ।
     aamaa aabaalaa maayaa jaame kaalaa ri jaame olaa ri man yumbaa phiri
     Parents give their love to their children; children give their hearts to a stone.

     बिझी बिबाराम्बा अनुहार च्याजि सिबाराम्बा ।
     bijhi bibaaraambaa anuhaar chyaaji sibaraambaa
     Head held high when speaking; head held low when doing.


     ज्या ढासा आता आता आता नह ढासा बाटा बाटा ।
     jya dhasa ata ata nahu dhasa bata bata
     At work time people step back, back; at meal time people step forward, forward.

     वा मरु व्याची लै नेमा ।
     wa maru byachi lai nema
     The toothless frog wants a radish.

     आलु वे हु ढासा भान्ता वे वनी भान्ता वे हु ढासा आलु वे वनी
     alu be hu dhasa bhanta be wani bhanta be hu dhasa alu be wari   
     At the potato harvest he goes to the eggplant fields; at the eggplant harvest he goes to the potato fields.

I did a lesson on proverbs for my eighth grade class about a month ago. The first day I presented some common English sayings on cards and had a separate set of cards with corresponding figurative meanings. In groups, students had to match the sayings to their meanings.

The second day students had to bring back cards with a saying in their own language, like in the picture above. I told them to ask their parents to help with this little mini-project, and to use languages other than Nepali if they could. The next day I received 21 cards with a total of 28 distinct sayings. Twenty were in Nepali, four were in Newari, and four were in Tamang. We spent the next class period working on English translations of the sayings.

     एक थुकी सुकि सय थुकी नादी ।
     ek thuki suki say thuki nadi
     Spit once and it dries; spit many times and it makes a river. (Nepali)

Unfortunately, "translation" can mean different things in this context. Some students wrote their best literal English translation of the sayings (like in the picture). This was very difficult for many in the class, and they instead wrote down the figurative meaning of their sayings on the back of the card in Nepali. The Newari and Tamang speakers mostly translated their cards from their own language into Nepali, but some of them wrote only the figurative meanings and left the literal meaning untranslated. It took quite some time to sort out the mess.

Also, I noticed that a surprising number of students wrote down the same few Nepali expressions. They had discovered a novel way to cheat: their 8th grade Nepali textbook had a list of sayings in the back of that they simply copied. Meanwhile, all four of the Newari speakers copied down Nepali expressions from the book and then made their own word-for-word translations into Newari (the three Newari  sayings at top were contributed by a teacher at my school). It seems like they take great lengths to avoid bringing their work home, but I can't fault students for their ingenuity.

     चोक्त खान गाएको बवडी झोलमा डुबेर मरी ।
     chokta khaane gaaeko buDi jholmaa dubera mari
     In search of the meat, the old woman drowns in the soup. (Nepali)

Why am I deliberately confusing my students by bringing in other languages into the English classroom? Because these are the native languages of the students, the languages with which the fullest expression of their minds bears fruit. These are the languages of their home life, their culture, and their society, and the majority of these languages are criminally undervalued. English conversational competency is the goal, and so English is the primary medium of instruction and direct translation is kept to a minimum. But with these sorts of projects the students have an opportunity to share their own culture in the classroom, which makes the classes much more interesting.

For example, there is a 7th grade English reading passage on the spread of the Indo-European languages and how languages such as Nepali and English are related. Before I taught it, the passage struck me as absurdly beyond the reach of many of the students. Yet it was probably the lesson in which I saw the students most engaged. This was partly because as a student of linguistics this is a topic of great interest to me, and so I was very careful to explain the concept to my students in simple terms (brother/sister languages, parent languages) and to come up with examples of similarity that are catching to the eye:

English:     My          name           is         Luke.
German:    Mein       Name          ist         Luke.

Spanish:   Mi          nombre        es          Luke. 
French:     Mon       nom             est         Luke.

Hindi:      Mera       naam           Luke      hai.
Nepali:    Mero       naam           Luke      ho.

Then we played games where students had to recognize numbers in over a dozen languages, and we talked about these same words in Newari and Tamang, and how these languages are not Indo-European, but are related to each other (and to Chinese).

      बाँदरलाई लिस्नो
      baandarlaai lisno
      Like giving a ladder to a monkey (Nepali)

I've mentioned before that about two-thirds of my students are ethnically Tamang, a few are Newari, and the rest are Nepali-speaking Brahmin-Chhettris. So why did so few of the students write down expressions in Tamang? Well, many students copied the Nepali expressions from the book, or from each other. Many of the Nepali-speaking students wrote down four or five expressions on their card, while Tamang and Newari expressions generally came one to a card.

But I would guess that even by 8th grade students are not very used to speaking Tamang in the school setting. The school is English medium, and the teachers generally speak Nepali to the students out of class. Most of the teachers know some basic Tamang, but none could answer my questions about the meanings on the cards (I had to talk to students for that, which means that the Tamang expressions are much sketchier translations - in fact, I've probably I've made a few mistakes in all three languages). Tamang, unlike Nepali and even Newari, is not stereotypically known as a language of learning and civilization. It is the language of a historically oppressed Buddhist hill tribe. That is one reason I wanted to hear it more in the classroom.

If you dig deep you can find interesting comparisons to discuss. In all four languages, we find rhymes, we find parallel structure, and we find cross-lingual similarities in meaning. I had a lot of fun trying to think of similar English sayings to share with the students.

     जस्को शक्ति उसको भक्ति ।
     jasko shakti usko bhakti
     Who has power, he is worshipped. (Nepali)

... is similar to...

     Might makes right.

     इन्द्रका अगाडी स्वर्गको बयान ।
     indraka agodi swargako bayan
     Describing Heaven to the Ruler of the Sky (Nepali)

... is similar to...

     Preaching to the choir

In a country in which less than 50% of the population speaks the national language as a mother tongue, schools must take the languages of their students into account. Most classrooms in Nepal are like my classroom, with students speaking several languages side-by-side. We can look at this as an institutional impediment to understanding or we can look at it as an opportunity for educational enrichment.


  1. Dear Luke, I like to correct as following:


    ज्या धा:सा आता आता नइगु धा:सा बाता बाता ।
    jya dhasa ata ata, naigu dhasa bata bata
    At work time people step back, back; at
    meal time people step forward, forward.

    वा मदु व्यांचिया लैँ नयेमा: ।
    wa maru (madu) byanchiya lai nayema
    The toothless frog wants a radish.

    आलु ब्वय् हुँ धा:सा पालु ब्वय् वनी,पालु ब्वय् हुँ धा:सा आलु ब्वय् वनी
    alu bwoye hu dhasa palu bwoye wonee palu bwoye hu dhasa alu bwoye wonee

    At the potato harvest he goes to the ginger fields; at the ginger harvest he goes to the potato fields.

  2. in-fact all the languages of Nepal must be referred to as NEPALI.

    The word NEPALI is an adjective of NEPAL. So all of NEPAL is NEPALI. All the langauges of Nepal are NEPALI languages, all the citizens of Nepal are NEPALI citizens. All the food of Nepal are Nepali food, all the dress of Nepal are Nepali dress.

    Original and correct name of the the language which you are saying NEPALI is KHAS or PARBATYA or GORKHA (खस or पर्बत्य or गोरखा). If we say only one language is NEPALI, then other will be NON-NEPALI. All languages of India is called Indian language whether it is Hindi or Marathi etc. All languages of China are known as Chinese. No matter whether it is Mandarin Chinese or Cantonese Chinese. Thanks.

  3. Thank you for the corrections! Like I said, I had some difficulty with those expressions because I don't speak any Newari. The appropriation of the name of a language is a very interesting issue to me - I mentioned the very little that I knew about that issue here:

    I suppose that the name 'Khas' became 'Nepali' as part of the effort to create a national identity around a national language. Rejecting the name 'Nepali' can symbolically give power back to the other Nepali languages.

    That seems to be what happened in India, like you mention, where there is no 'Indian' language, only Hindi, Marathi, etc. I think of Hindi as one of the main national languages, but nobody would refer to it as 'Indian.'

    I think that in English-speaking countries many people say just 'Chinese' to mean 'Mandarin Chinese,' which I guess is about the same thing as calling Khas 'Nepali.' I don't know if it's true, but I've heard that the Chinese gov't prefers to view Mandarin, Cantonese, etc. as 'dialects' of the single language Chinese, even though these 'dialects' are mutually unintelligible and classified as different languages by organizations like the Ethnologue.

    On the Ethnologue, there is no 'Indian' or 'Chinese' language (only 'Hindi' and 'Mandarin Chinese', etc.), but 'Nepali' is the name given to Khas. I wonder if you can lobby to get that changed?

  4. i completely agree with mr.Dipak Tuladhar