Posted July 16th 2010 at 3:40 pm by
in Nepali Classes at MIT

The Significance of How Plus What

This was the second real week of Nepali classes here at MIT as the first class was more like an orientation. Nearly a month ago, we started with sixteen students whose ages varied from two to fourteen years old. A few more students have signed up, and we are at twenty now.  It was a varied bunch with regard to language skill and fluency.  Some could only understand, others could speak, and even read and write, and then there were students who could not do any of these things. With such differences in age and background, we wondered how to group these students into sections.


A page from a first grade language book used in Nepali public schools showing traditional musical instruments from Nepal

We started with a diagnostic examination to determine to what extent each student could speak, understand, read, and write. Then, we put them into four sections according to their skill level, regardless of age. However, over the past weeks we have had to change things around a bit. This is because some students made faster progress than others. Also, even though two students of different ages appeared to be at the same level from the diagnostic test, the teaching methodology has been different for each age group. For example, younger students responded to song and dance, while older students responded to interactive lectures on a blackboard. Older students seemed to understand more complex examples, while the difficulty of examples for younger students seemed to grow only gradually.

When we learn a language at a young age, it serves at least two purposes.  First, it is a means of communicating about the world we know. Second, it is also a means of knowing more about the world. That is, by expanding our vocabulary, we are also expanding our knowledge of concepts in the world. For example, when we teach students the Nepali word aali, which is the channel that collects water next to a bed of crops, they also learn that such a thing exists in the world.  Even though the aali is not in their urban world, they see that it is certainly present in rural Nepal.

If the Nepali community as a whole shares aspects of a common reality, even if it is just a historical reality, then the methods and materials we were using to teach the students seem to take on a whole new importance. We realized that members of the community could communicate in a common language, but more importantly, they could also communicate about common themes and objects.  It was this thinking that helped us teachers figure out what materials to use to teach the language. When faced with the choice of whether to use focused materials prepared specifically for the purpose of teaching foreigners the Nepali language rapidly, or to use the more slow-going and seemingly irrelevant materials used by public school students in Nepal, we decided on the latter.  It was not an obvious decision. With the more focused materials, we would get the students speaking quickly. With the more general materials from Nepal, it would take some time to get them to that point, yet they would learn about things they may never have seen, which are common in the Nepali context, such as the aali. The first set of materials used examples of common objects in Boston such as libraries, police cars, cats and dogs. The second used examples from a different world such as terraced fields on mountainsides, millstones, monkeys, rhinos and tigers.

A gut instinct told us that the materials we used would be important in exposing the students to objects common to a community, and so we followed it.  We scanned the Nepali language books used in grades one through ten, and started our teaching.  Unintentionally, we may have given the students yet another way to connect to the larger community. We were teaching the students not just a language to communicate with, but also giving them the knowledge of shared objects and historical context to communicate about.  In this way, it seems that both “the how and the what of language” hold the community together.

Atul Pokharel is a PhD candidate in the International Development Group at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. He is in his third year in the program and focuses on law and economic development. This summer he is in Boston watching the World Cup.

2 responses to “The Significance of How Plus What”

  1. Aditi Mehta says:

    Atul, Thank you for sharing your experience teaching your native language to Nepali-Americans. My parents moved here from India, and I think learning Hindi through formal and informal classes has been one of the best ways to hold on to my heritage and roots. Your decision to use the Nepali school materials was a good one because learning a foreign language is so much more than just grammar and mechanics. In fact, I think learning a foreign language is less meaningful if you don’t really understand the cultural context of the country – too much gets lost in translation without the cultural understanding!

  2. Hector says:


    This is a wonderful project. I would be interested to know the motivations for parents to send their children to the classes. For example, regarding children that have grown up in the U.S., do you sense that parents want to expose them to the Nepali culture and language in a way that perhaps they have not been able to do at home? Also, two weeks in, what would you say motivates the children to attend? For the younger students I assume it has a lot to do with their parents wishes. But how about the older students? What do they say when asked: “why are you here”?

    On a related note, my sister is a 1st grade teacher at a language immersion public school in Maryland. Starting next year she has to teach all of her classes in Spanish. After reading your post, I am curious to find out from her what types of materials the county requires her to use (and whether in her experience they are effective).