Hundreds of thousands of foreigners pass through Nepal each year as tourists, development consultants, students and volunteers. For anyone staying more than a month, learning Nepali is useful, enjoyable and rewarding for the possibilities of social interaction it affords the visitor beyond encounters with the elite of linguistically proficient tourist traders in Kathmandu. Nepali is the second language of roughly half the population, and so a version of it as a simplified rural lingua franca with uncomplicated verb endings can easily be picked up. If the visitor is able to visit repeatedly, a deeper knowledge of the language and script is advisable, and this is just the book for the task.
Michael Hutt and Abhi Subedi have come up with a conveniently sized programme of self-instruction that starts immediately with the hard slog of learning the Devanagari script. This will be intimidating to anyone not committed to acquiring literacy skills, and familiarisation with the characters could have been made simpler by printing them larger, as a magnifying glass is virtually a necessity to read the samples of Nepali handwriting. The learner is given four chapters to get acquainted with the script before the Roman version is abandoned. Helpful information is offered in adjusting to unfamiliar oral gymnastics, as in the advice that English speakers' usual consonants tend to sound retroflex rather than hard to the Nepali ear. Cassettes are available to assist in pronunciation.
Some of the 24 chapters have cartoon illustrations of conversational scenes, including a suspiciously Lady Diana-like portrait of a British woman on her first visit to a village. Each chapter bar one consists of an opening conversation with its English translation, grammatical exposition, and exercises that can be checked using a key at the back of the book. The examples have been chosen adroitly to give the learner a significant range of cultural information and pointers to Nepali literature and social mores. The local penchant for proverbs is alluded to in examples such as "Because of his hurry to get married he forgot to ask for a girl." The vocabulary used is not however comprehensively listed in the glossary, which is a little frustrating.
An up-to-date feel for contemporary life in Nepal is conveyed by references to the cinema, and the inclusion of an Aids awareness poster exhorting us to defeat the disease in the subjunctive by wearing condoms.
Treatment of the language of politics and democracy, however, is minuscule: these days it is a considerable conversational terrain that visitors can expect to be engaged in by Nepalis curious about comparing political systems. Dealing with bureaucracy is another area in which anyone spending long enough in Nepal would have appreciated some coaching. Teach Yourself Nepali can be recommended, though, as the best available entry to anyone wanting an accessible and informative induction to Nepali.
Ben Campbell is research fellow, International Centre for Contemporary Cultural Research, University of Manchester.
Teach Yourself Nepali. First Edition
Author - Michael Hutt and Abhi Subedi
ISBN - 0 340 71130 2
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Price - £14.99
Pages - 308