Around the year 1990, I was studying in class eight. Mohan Sir used to teach English. As many believed, he was a very good teacher. He also gave regular homework. Once he asked me to make a conditional sentence in English. For as long as I can remember, I should have made a sentence something like this: ‘If I am a good writer, I will write a good book.’ I still don’t understand what went wrong. I made a sentence like this: ‘I have made a wish that I have become a great writer.’
My teacher checked answer. There were nothing but red ink stains all over my copy. Everything had just been crossed. Ultimately, I failed English in the final exam of 8th grade. I could never develop deep love for the English subject since then.
Similarly, I failed in class 10th as well. I could not pass the 10th grade English because I did not write the prepositions in the right place. Climbing the ladder of English became more and more difficult for me. Over time, my perception of the English language started becoming increasingly pessimistic.
Around the year 2000, I took my bachelor level English exam. After looking at the questions, I wrote a paragraph about a football match. But the question required me to write about a picnic spot. I have not been able to distinguish between football and picnic spots. Later, when the results were announced, I had scored only 26 out of 100. This was the third accident among a dozen of them related with my understanding of English.
Maybe everyone finds learning the second language more difficult compared to the mother tongue. English was very difficult for me as is a marathon race for a child. It is still difficult.
After a long time, I thought that I should write about it even though I still find the language difficult. But how to write? If I wanted to write, how could I have failed in class eight, ten and at the college level continuously? It is true that I failed English because I could not distinguish between ‘sport’ and ‘spot’. It is a common story for all of us who use English as a second language.
The ghost of the English subject continued to haunt me. I had to do two things at once. First, I had to study for my college without facing English and move up to the higher classes easily. So I started studying Nepali. It was fun for some time because I didn’t have to encounter English anymore. But time did not stand still. I was shocked much later as I went climbing the ladder of higher education. It was absolutely true that English is a necessary tool to widen the scope of knowledge and test something new. Regardless of whether we call this linguistic dominance or linguistic empire, I continued to experience the true pain of being limited because I knew little English.
Times have changed today. Technology has evolved. Use of the Internet has increased. The prevalence of social media has increased and the number of private schools have increased too. Access to all these things have been made by the knowledge of English.
About twenty years ago, the story was different. There are millions of government school and college students who grew up with the bitter reality of not knowing English as I did. I am only a representative of such group. Still, some teachers of English working in the remote areas seem to have problems with English. I saw that a lady teacher who teaches Science at the lower secondary level did not know how to spell science and the fact went viral on the social media. Honorable Dharam Shila Chapagai and Gokarna Bista’s speeches in English language are still available on YouTube. Many people have a troll out of them. What does this show? How is the quality of English we have learned? What was our teaching method for learning English?
The truth is that even though I have earned a master’s degree in Nepali, I cannot write an application in English. My friends would ask me to write an application in English and I would laugh. Once my friend Bishwa Sigdel had to write a request letter in English on the letter head of the Central Department of Nepali and send it to India where he was working. The head of the department was Prof. Rajendra Subedi. Friends came to see me for the purpose. My friends had a delusion that I could write in English well. I also did not reveal my reality to my friends. I employed the skills that I had struggled to memorize in that situation. What kind of written application was prepared? Rajendra Sir signed it. The application was sent to India. Sigdel came to Nepal on leave. Perhaps the Indians are good at understanding broken English.
I earned my degree without knowing English. I went to the Madan Pursakar Library to work for a project called Endangered Archive Program (EAP). It also engaged people from abroad. Once a British citizen named Jim came. An old man named Patrick Hall used to sit and talk to my boss Mr. Amar Gurung every now and then. Another man, Mr. Jee Sundar from Chennai, India also spoke English quite well. I used to go to their offices only when they were not there to see if I could meet them. They would try to say something but I would avoid making eye contact with them as much as possible. I didn’t dare to go near. I used to get nervous if they made eye contact. The reason was that I did not know English. After walking in the fear that I don’t know English, I even started the ABCD I had learnt as a kid.
I started studying library science after receiving a scholarship from Madan Puraskar Library. Library Science was taught in English. All the books on that subject were only in English. There were teachers like Mrs Leela Dahal, Mr. Rudra Dulal and Mrs Leela Nyainchai who had good English skills. Though it was a two years’ course, the movement for republicanism lengthened our study time and it took three years. I spent those three years in an English environment. I wrote a term paper in English as soon as I could. I also wrote the final examination in English. I also prepared my research papers in English. Little by little, my English writing started to improve. I also started listening to the BBC radio a little more at home. As soon as I could, I started writing in English. And English words, sentences and paragraphs started to take a shape
Upon finishing my master’s degree in Library Science, I became a member of the Library Association. I had an opportunity to visit Singapore, Indonesia, South Africa, and other places to attend library programs. I felt anxious when speaking English. It appeared that people in Asian countries spoke English similarly. I also observed that the Japanese, Chinese, and the Koreans find English more challenging than we do. Since that day, my self-confidence grew, and I realized that English is difficult for everyone.
I was required to create projects in the English language for the Library Association. A proposal was drafted for the International Federation of Library Association (IFLA). It was successfully approved. A proposal was also submitted to the American Embassy, Kathmandu which was likewise approved. Similarly, the proposal for the Asia Foundation was accepted. It was truly amazing to see that foreign organization comprehended my English and supported my ideas. It was a joyous moment, and I felt like I was advancing in my English skills.
My niece, who is 10 years old, has been living in Britain for quite some time. She communicates with me exclusively in English. While I couldn’t teach her Nepali, I unintentionally affected her English-speaking abilities negatively. Surprisingly, I managed to learn a bit of English from her. This experience taught me that anyone, regardless of age, can learn to speak English. I am grateful to my niece for this valuable lesson.
No one told me that not knowing English is being ignorant. Yes, I have accepted internally that language is a learning journey. Transforming the sadness of not knowing English into motivation and determination is the way to learn the language. Why is my English so bad? To know the answer to that question, I had to clear my master’s degree in Nepali. Had to face problems at work. The day I got the answer, I stopped being afraid of mistakes. This article is an exercise of that.
You might have encountered similar obstacles while learning English at school, college, and professional settings. These challenges encompass grasping English grammar rules, distinguishing between words, and composing English applications. The language itself evokes a significant amount of anxiety. It is crucial to remember that language acquisition is an ongoing journey, and we can surmount language barriers by fostering supportive groups. Embracing online resources like dictionaries and translation tools can also facilitate language learning. Above all, we should be open to making mistakes during the learning process. By sharing our experiences, we can inspire others who aspire to enhance their English skills and encourage them to overcome their fears. Sorry for my bad English!
[Ashok Thapa, PhD, is a faculty member at Tribhuvan University in Kirtipur. He holds the position of a professor specializing in Nepali literature. Apart from his role as an educator, he is also an accomplished storyteller and a writer. Additionally, he displays a keen interest in composing book reviews. One of his notable literary works is the collection of stories entitled “Santapko Dhun,” which has garnered recognition and acclaim. Notably, Ashok Thapa exhibits his exceptional writing skills in both Nepali and English languages.]