A for apple, B for ball: Tracing the Nepalese Fascination for the English Language

Festival Issue 95 Jul, 2010
Text by Utsav Shakya / Photo: ECS Media

A for apple, B for ball, C for cat, D for dog... Put your ear against any kindergarten
door in Nepal and you will hear the unified voice of numerous children as they shout themselves hoarse in sing-song, reciting these lines over and over after their class teacher. And if you beg to differ and say A is for animal and B is for bed, chances are the children will think that you are a little off! And it is precisely because ‘A’ can only be for apple (for a lot of them until they learn better) that you hear so many hilarious examples of both spoken and written English in Nepal.

The initial foray of children into the world of English might be through learning the alphabet; however, the way children learn to put together words to make up a sentence is through translating their Nepali word for word into English. A young cousin, although he has improved his language skills considerably, used to shout, “Baba, your phone is coming!” to his father every time he heard his father’s unattended mobile phone ring. I have also heard a well meaning Nepali person try to show off a little by asking this to a foreigner, “Excuse me Sir, what is the time by your watch?” When my young sister was not convinced with something that was said to her, with a puzzled look on her young face, she demanded an explanation by asking “Because say why?” All three sentences mentioned have one glaring similarity. All of them are without a doubt translated directly into English from perfectly correct Nepali sentences. The humor comes in because a lot of Nepalese think that because their Nepali is grammatically correct, a word to word translation into English cannot be too far off from correct English!

There is a deep rooted fixation for the English language amidst the Nepali population. Some believe that this obsession became more pronounced with the entry of television sets and even more with cable TV in Nepalese households. Before this, the state run Nepal Television channel and Doordarshan from India were the only channels on television and the English language programs on these channels were hardly something that would get any attention. But cable brought in the STAR channels and MTV and introduced Western culture and lifestyle to the Nepalese. And the first thing people caught on was obviously the language. To people speaking Nepali, a language which is rather formal, American English with its slang and subversive drawl must have surely sounded liberating. For whatever reasons it caught on, the fascination has proven to have longevity.

Others believe that the Nepalese fascination with speaking English can be traced further back; to the fixation of Nepal’s older day rulers on imitating the British, who were a huge influence on everything from the rulers’ penchant for game hunting to the colonial style buildings that they had built for their work and residential purposes. When the first school was set up in the country, the Durbar High School (which today lies in a sorry state in front of the famed Rani Pokhari), it was accessible only to members of the royal class and to a very small well-connected percentage of the general public. One of the first subjects introduced in the school was English. This was probably because the ability to converse and write in English was very desirable because it meant that any person who had this ability in Nepal was obviously from the ruling class or was extremely well connected. Knowledge of the language therefore became a symbol of status. The idea seems to have stuck with public perceptions. Today, Nepalese parents readily pay exorbitant amounts of money just to send their children to ‘English medium’ schools. A person with mediocre ideas speaking good English for some reason may very well be preferred at a job interview over a super intelligent person who presents himself in Nepali. The language has somehow become synonymous with and in some cases even an unfitting substitute for intelligence.

English speaking also flourished in the capital with the hippie era urging everyone who wanted to cash in on the times to at least learn enough English to be able to hold a simple conversation. The youth of that generation were obviously more strongly influenced by the hippie era, with the music and the literature of the times changing many lives in Kathmandu. But speaking English amongst locals always had a tinge of self consciousness to it; as if the speaker feared that h or she might be ostracized for being a poser, a wannabe. So English sentences would be limited to only certain parts of the conversation, for instance to either quote someone or to emphasize a point. Perhaps the idea was to appear ‘hip’ enough to know the language, while at the same time be grounded enough to speak in the local language. Today, however, the self consciousness has all but evaporated as English increasingly becomes the official language in major institutions such as banks, schools and one of the major revenue generating sectors for the country – tourism.

One-upping the English-speaking Nepalese person is the Nepalese who speaks English feigning an accent. This accent is both funny and sad at the same time. Funny because it never comes out right and sad because this need to even use an accent only reinforces the same perception mentioned earlier. If speaking English is an indicator of affluence, speaking it with an accent must mean belonging to an elite class! And because the accents are learned from a variety of sources, they become hard to follow as the speaker switches from proper British pronunciations to using American slang, pausing in between using the infamous Indian way of stressing the ‘ands’ and ‘buts’. If the person gave you the impression that he had been abroad, you would never be able to place him!

Humor apart, learning a foreign language is not a bad thing. Fluency in English has opened up many doors for people in Nepal. Tourism, the second largest source of revenue for the country, is a great example of this phenomenon. Just the ability to converse in English has allowed many locals in mountainous areas – many of whom are illiterate and do not have any other vocational skills to earn a living   to work as guides and porters for tourists and provide for their families. The English language, as a tool for education, progress and development, rightly deserves the attention given to it by the Nepalese people.

But modern civilization today seems to increasingly equal adopting a Western lifestyle.  And in many instances, as people speak in a foreign language and adopt a new and more casual lifestyle, it is understandable how they can get carried away and lose contact with their society and lifestyle, which is very different from the one they might want to adopt. Lifestyles are personal choices but should not come at the cost of disrupting social balance. There is always a middle path that people can take. The desire to have young people obtain fluency in English is great, but in no way should parents let them believe that the English language is a class thing. The best usage of English language is as a tool that allows access to so much more information, be it textual, visual or of any other sort, and as a way to get your ideas across to a larger group of people. In no way should it aid the unraveling of a social fabric that has been sewn with such care with threads of culture, religion and unique Nepalese values. 

Utsav Shakya is a freelance writer and can be reached at utsavshakya@gmail.com. Phone: 98413.27.187.