Tips about learning Nepali Language

Learning the Nepali language

 The 2013 trip will not require proficiency in Nepali language, but if you do study it you will have ever so much more fun. The simple fact of reading a street sign or a menu will make everything easier. (for example, knowing where the MoMo shops are…)

some people on this list have done their own language study  – I welcome your input and advice! You know who you are, Ozzies!

Note: this is excerpted from my book. For those of you who are seriously thinking of going to Nepal, learning the language is extremely helpful.  On Amazon is a review I wrote about the book Teach Yourself Nepali by Michael Hutt.

If you are going to Nepal for just a short time, you may not go this deep – just a phrase book will do. And,

there are now more resources on language available on YouTube. I will look at some and maybe make recommendations.


            There are no nursing textbooks written in the Nepali language, and throughout the country nurses and doctors are taught using the English language. Our students studied from books published in India or Kathmandu, printed on cheap paper with no color plate illustrations. A typical American textbook costs more than three month’s wages for an adult Nepali, and no student could own a personal textbook. The students always studied in groups. That is why the school wanted American textbooks. When they opened the seven boxes of books, two employees spent three days cataloging them, and assigned them a value of twelve thousand US dollars for accounting purposes.   They were very grateful and this gift created a lot of goodwill. The school owned several computers and they especially liked the books that came with CDs.

Even though the students were bilingual I decided to learn the Nepali language before I got there. I figured it would help me get out from under the bubble. I called the University of Hawaii language department to ask about taking a course in Nepali. No, they did not offer coursework in this language.  No, they did not know of anybody who could teach me either.  I was on my own to find a private tutor. Now here is an interesting puzzle. To solve it, I made a small flyer that said, UH Professor seeks a Nepali language tutor. There is just one Indian grocery store in Honolulu and it is located near the University. I walked down one Saturday and spoke to the man behind the counter. He smiled and posted my little flyer next to the Bollywood DVDs.  Within six hours I got a phone call. The woman was originally from Kathmandu and her husband was a UH graduate student. She would teach me and we arranged weekly lessons.

Each week I would go to my tutor’s apartment and sit with my tutor on a sheet spread on the living room floor for the lesson while her six-year-old daughter watched.  The family also ate while sitting cross-legged on a sheet spread out in the living room. My knees would get tired and sooner or later I would move to the easy chair.

One week my tutor called to remind me not to eat before coming over because we would have dal-bhaat, the staple food that people in Nepal eat at least once a day. There is a steel dish with a high rim around it, and when sit are on the floor to eat, you hold the dish in your lap. On the dish is a mound of cooked rice (bhaat) along with a small bowl of lentil soup (dal). Next to it in a separate compartment is some sag, green and leafy like cooked spinach. Maybe there are some cucumber slices and a hot pepper or two. Sometimes there will be a little yogurt, sometimes a little mutton curry in a side dish.  In the last compartment will be achaar, a sort of condiment based on tomatoes with spices.  Pour the lentil soup over the rice, and mix it with your right hand, sometimes swirling with the palm.  Pick up a ball of rice, with your thumb bent just so to keep it steady, and pop it into your mouth. Nepali people can do this neatly. My first time was not so neat. At a restaurant the servers will keep filling up your plate as you eat, unless you tell them you are full, for which the term is pugio.

Once the food comes out, people eat without talking, sometimes without even looking up.  After eating, water is poured over the right hand to wash it. Nepalis are always curious to see whether a videshi will eat the Nepali way, or ask for a spoon. I never saw people linger once the meal was finished. You do your talking before the food comes out. My tutor also made me some Chiya, tea the Nepali way.  It was strong and I was awake the whole night afterwards.

Learning the language started with the syllabary. This is the linguistic term for the alphabet of Devanagari, in which Nepali is written. It is very similar to Sanskrit, the writing system of northern India.  There are thirty three consonants, and eleven vowels. Learning only forty-four characters is not enough. There is a system of eleven diacritical markers that may be placed before or after each consonant to change the sound; and there are “conjunct” characters to learn – a conjunct is when two consonants are squeezed together. Finally, there are about a hundred and fifty “half-characters.”

In the languages that use Devanagari, the pronunciation of certain letters does not lend itself well to an American transliteration. There is a subtle “breathiness” which changes some letters. I recall spending a half-hour sitting on the floor trying to master the difference between “ta,” “tHa” and “taw,” which was interrupted by hysterical laughter.

I made flash cards for the vowels and consonants and carried them with me wherever I went. I practiced every day. Within two months I was getting it. Later, I added flash cards for the simple words I learned. One day during my class with the nursing students I was writing the schedule on the blackboard and said to myself I wonder how I would spell ‘coffee’ using Devanagari.  With a moment’s thought I was able to come up with the spelling, and stood at the blackboard chuckling. I turned around and I could see the students were not really paying attention.  Oh well.

I made a special trip to the bookstore to get a guidebook. I got to the travel section looking for Asia. There they were, five possible guidebooks on Nepal. Which one to buy? I flipped through each, looking to see if there was a section on Tansen.  The first two only gave it a paragraph. “Nice hill town,” was about all they said.  You know you are off the map when it’s not in the Lonely Planet. The guide from the Moon Handbook series included five pages along with a small schematic map. That is the one I bought. I photocopied the pages and posted them outside my office door so that people could see where I was going for the summer.


About Joe Niemczura, RN, MS

These blogs, and my books, and videos are written on the principle that any person embarking on something similar to what I do will gain more preparation than I first had, by reading them. I have fifteen years of USA nursing faculty background. Add to it fifteen more devoted to adult critical care. In Nepal, I started teaching critical care skills in 2011. I figure out what they need to know in a Nepali practice setting. Then I teach it in a culturally appropriate way so that the boots-on-the-ground people will use it. One theme of my work has been collective culture and how it manifests itself in anger. Because this was a problem I incorporated elements of "situational awareness" training from the beginning, in 2011.
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5 Responses to Tips about learning Nepali Language

  1. Gaynor Sheahan says:

    You’re right Joe, being able to speak a little Nepali will make your experience in Nepal so much more enjoyable, even on a short term trip. Nepalis are exceedingly pleased when foreigners try and speak Nepali and very tolerant of mistakes or poor pronunciation. In fact, my experience is that they will rarely correct you but just bestow fulsome praise on your fluency! Having a go seems to help take your relationship to a whole new level.
    It is possible to learn Nepali using a Romanised script, and that’s fine if you’re put off by the difficulties of the Devanagri and want to learn a lot of Nepali quickly. I would recommend the book Basic Course in Spoken Nepali (Tika B. Karki & Chij K. Streshtha) available from Ekta bookshop in Patan. Your pronunciation may not be as accurate in my view but it’s an excellent book to learn a lot of Nepali quickly.

  2. any suggestiiona s to books available in western bookstores?

    • Gaynor Sheahan says:

      Basic Course in Spoken Nepali (Tika B. Karki & Chij K. Streshtha) is available on Amazon as well. I think the Peace Corp guys teach a Romanised version of Nepali to their volunteers too and I’ve heard their course is excellent. Not sure how you would go about getting copies of that?

    • Gaynor Sheahan says:

      Actually it IS the one used by the Peace Corp, or at least was.

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