Writing for me primarily means expressing myself in an acceptable and formal way. My idea, experience or emotion, if left untold, I feel suffocated. So I write whenever I can. Until now, I have written my blog posts in my native language ‘Nepali’, which can be found here. I haven’t written blog posts in English because I have this disease called ‘Englishophobia’. But I am writing now as some of my friends who don’t understand Nepali have asked me to do so. This one is dedicated to them.
Learning English has been a painful experience to me. During my school days, it looked ‘too cool’ to me when some of my friends, who went to English school, talked in mixed Nepali-English language. They read English magazines as I looked out of the window while going to the school on the same bus. In our school (public), until grade 10, each grade had one course in English and the rest were in native language Nepali. In the high school, things got reversed, there was one course in Nepali and the rest in English, including physics, chemistry, and maths.
I vividly remember my first physics class in the high school. The physics teacher was not teaching something new but everything looked ‘foreign’ to me in that foreign language. All I could say, from the parallel lines drawn on the blackboard, was that he was teaching something on the reflection of light.
At that time, my mind would think, act, and react in Nepali way. I found it difficult to describe something in English and it was even more difficult when it was about emotions. When I had to write something in English, I would think first in my native language and then I would convert the idea into English. Most of the time the conversion didn’t make any sense.
There was a time when I understood nothing while watching CNN or BBC. When I was in my early stage of undergraduate study, I once went to watch an English movie ‘Collateral’ with my friend. There was absolutely nothing that I could understand, though I visually enjoyed a few action scenes by Tom Cruise.
Then I started forcing myself to learn English. The main drive for learning English was common to all Nepali youths – I also wanted to go abroad for my higher studies.
I started reading English newspapers and watching TV channels in English, both of which have lasted until now. One of my elder brother’s friend who studied ‘English’ in his Master’s degree gave me a few tips on how to improve English. He said that we have to ‘think in English’ apart from talking, reading, and writing in English. The idea of thinking in English looked ridiculous to me at that time. But somehow, I do that now. I also started talking to my roommates in English, which, unfortunately, didn’t last longer. I also started writing my diary in English. When I look at that diary now, it looks so dull and boring. Nevertheless, it is a testament of truth and is invaluable to me. The first sentence of the diary everyday would read – Today I opened my eyes at 6:30 and drank tea. The last sentence would always be – It is time to sleep now.
It was generally not possible to go abroad for higher studies without passing the TOEFL and the GRE tests. So, I started to practice the tests and build some vocabulary. Like everyone, I also learned thousands of words by heart. Fortunately, I still remember a few of them.
First, it was ‘TOEFL’ only. Then it was ‘TOEFL iBT’. I would have easily avoided this TOEFL iBT which contained additional speaking test if I were born one year before. Clearly, my parents’ fault here.
There was one more thing called ‘GRE’. Thanks god GRE had some maths, not only English.
My first exposure to the English speaking community was when I went to Abu Dhabi for my Master’s degree. There was no one around me to whom I could talk in Nepali. I felt relieved when I talked to my family members in Skype every evening.
At that time, I would pronounce both ‘a**’ and ‘ash’ the same. My Pakistani friend in Abu Dhabi taught me how these two words differ phonetically. My another American friend taught me how I should pronounce ‘Potato’ correctly, which I would pronounce as ‘Potyato’. My Indian friend taught me how to pronounce ‘Yellow’ correctly, which I would pronounce as ‘Ello’. Only then did I realize that I need to practice ‘active listening’. If you want to listen to how my English would sound before, please watch this epic song in Nepalinglish.
The pressure of English became overwhelming when I had to start writing journal papers in English. I feel uncomfortable to mention my first journal paper now, because of my ‘not so poor English’. I hope everyone agrees when I say that the first journal paper is a piece of ‘ultimate shame’ to everyone, whether it be for ‘English’ reason or else. Please insert smiley 1 here. When I came to the University of Texas at Austin for my PhD, I sincerely hoped that I would not be kicked out for the English reason. Now, I feel sorry for my advisers for confusing them enough by using the article ‘the’ when it was not necessary. I will probably never figure out when to use/not to use a comma. And I don’t want to talk about the difference between British and American English for now.
Now, I still find it difficult to pronounce some alphabets/words. I wish my first name contained no ‘g’ because I have never pronounced it correctly while making appointments. According to some native American friends, I pronounce ‘g’ like ‘z’ with a strong stress. I had learned to pronounce ‘z’ as ‘zed’ which suddenly stopped making sense after I came to the US. When I try to pronounce ‘g’ correctly, I feel restrained myself and my body tends to move backward.
Few weeks ago, I went to Italy together with my Chinese colleague for a conference. In the conference, there were more participants from Europe than from elsewhere, whose primary language was not English. Broken English was everywhere there. I remember, in one session, a presenter answered a question differently because he didn’t understand the question from a British scientist correctly. There was another instance of awkwardness when a Korean presenter didn’t understand a question even after multiple rephrasing of the question. But, language was not strictly a barrier there for communication. Participants seemed to follow the ‘science aspect’ of the talk anyway, which mattered in the end.
In our back trip from Rome to Bari, we met some Italian friends on the train who taught us some common Italian words. My Chinese friend had hard time pronouncing ‘Grazie’ (means ‘thank you’) which should be pronounced correctly as ‘grahtsi’. He always pronounced ‘grahtsi’ as ‘grahsi’, which, probably, makes more sense. Italian people around us on the train laughed (not in contempt) as we learned to pronounce some Italian words.
In our return flight from Bari to Philadelphia, another incidence took place because of the accent. We were seated near the emergency exit so we were asked if we are willing to follow the instructions in case of emergency. I replied ‘No’ in humor. Either the air hostess didn’t get the humor, or she thought the security issue is not a matter of humor. But my Chinese friend didn’t quite understand what she meant and he looked at me. Then I replied on his behalf. In the end, we had to swap our seats with a couple who volunteered to sit there.
I hope this ‘Englishophobia’ will be over soon as I continue to do everything in English including eating, laughing, and crying. In the meantime, I humbly request my fellow American friends to speak slowly and clearly when talking to non-native English speakers like me.
Okay. Enough of English for today. Please allow me now to skype with my family in Nepali for a while.
Peace and love.