In her sixth diary entry, Shiriin Barakzai shares a few amusing stories about watching movies at the monastery, struggling to overcome a number of local language hurdles and some exciting technological developments in Bhutan.

As mentioned last month, it is holiday season in Bhutan. The main school holiday is in winter, as it is too cold to study in the classrooms. It is definitely colder up on the hillside, where Nalanda is nestled, and everyone sits out in the sun whenever they can. As in mainstream schools, the monks have completed their exams, but the senior class had to stay on a bit longer because they have to write national exams; they are staying on till early January.

A friend recently told me an entertaining story about keeping warm in Bhutan during the winter months. When he lived at the hostel as a child, the cook would get the children to bring a stone to the kitchen every morning and he would place these stones in the ashes of the fire while he cooked their breakfast. By the time breakfast was over, their stones were taken from the ashes and cooled down so that the children could hold them. The cook would then send them on their way to their classrooms and they could sit their exams with warm hands!

In this quiet time, I’ve been downloading resources from onestopenglish. Lebeh Tshewang only has a dial-up internet connection so you can imagine that downloading material from the internet can sometimes be quite painful! It is also a challenge to find material that the monks can understand from a cultural perspective, as there are many things they don’t have cultural references for. So, although they’re fun to read, anything involving a trip to a museum, the cinema or a swimming pool, or a reference to Harry Potter or the Oscars, doesn’t really work.

Writing or speaking activities about holidays, school, jobs or weekend activities also don’t give us much to work with, because all of the monks live here and share all aspects of everyday life. There is very little variety in their lives so, unfortunately, some of these lesson plans just don’t work for us.

After all the youngsters had gone back to their villages, I went to visit the monks on New Year's Day. We watched some movies with an overhead projector attached to a laptop and a bed sheet pinned to the wall. We watched two Bhutanese films and one English film, but lost most of the audience along the way due to tiredness and the speed of English.

The Bhutanese celebrate the winter solstice in January with a public holiday. The monks had a kuru match against a visiting team of monks from Wangdue dzong (fortress). Kuru is basically a game where oversized darts are thrown about 50 metres or more at a wooden target. Each team has eight players and each player gets to throw two darts, paired up with a player from the opposing team. When everyone is done, they begin to throw the darts in the opposite direction. As with Bhutanese archery, the teams are allowed to harass the opposition when they are about to throw, so catcalls, singing and dog impressions are all par for the course. But if someone hits the target, then there’s a little victory dance and song, and the winning player receives a piece of coloured cloth to tuck into their belt. Therefore, the player with the most bits of cloth at the end of the match is the man of the day.

As I mentioned last month, there are many words and phrases from a number of the local languages that are commonly used here, even by English speakers. The official language of Bhutan is Dzongkha, but there are other many regional languages used, most of which have no written form but are extensively spoken. Nepali is also spoken, especially in the south, and both Nepali and Hindi words have been absorbed from popular songs and movies.

In Bhutan, it is common to have a conversation where at least four languages are used, usually including English, Dzongkha, Sharchop and Nepali. This is part of my excuse for having picked up so little Dzongkha, as there are so few words that are consistently used, so I struggle to remember them!

I am often amazed at how easily people switch between languages, because I consider myself to be useless at learning languages. My friend and I were recently driving along a main highway and needed to find some lunch. We stopped at a small shop and asked if there was any hot food. The shopkeeper said he didn’t have anything, but there was a village lady with a hotcase (food thermos) of pourri (fried bread) and ezey (chilli sauce with coriander and tomatoes). So we sat down and she opened up her hotcase on the floor and dished out four portions of pourri, each with a dollop of sauce. The shopkeeper was speaking Nepali, my friend was speaking Dzongkha, the lady was speaking a local dialect and everyone understood each other!

As in many Asian countries, when an individual doesn't know another person's name, he or she may address the person as ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘aunty’, etc. These titles exist in all of the local languages and if you can recognize what word is being used, you can also second-guess what part of the country a speaker may originate from.

(All of my spelling is ‘phonetic’, based on my uneducated guess! But 'e's at end of words are usually pronounced as their own syllable. Obviously, I’m writing from my own personal experience and so the true purpose or origin of some words may not be correct.)

  • Father (any one old enough to be your dad): Dzongkha – Apa
  • Mother (anyone old enough to be your mum): Dzongkha – Ama
  • Grandad: Dzongkha – Agay, Sharchop – Meme
  • Grandma: Dzongkha – Angay; Sharchop – Abi
  • Younger Sister: Sharchop – Usa: Nepali – Bhaini
  • Older Sister: Sharchop – Ana: Nepali – Didi
  • Younger Brother: Dzongkha – Kota
  • Older Brother: Sharchop – Atta, Dzongkha – Acho
  • Anyone older (male or female): Dzongkha – Aue

Then there are some honorifics in general language use for addressing someone hierarchically senior to you (or if you’re trying to grovel). So, again, if you overhear a greeting, you can usually assess whether the speaker is important and whether you should stand, shake with both hands, bow or whatever the case may be.

  • Someone granted title by the king or the mayor (historically): Dasho 
  • Female version of Dasho: Aum 
  • Queen, used when there were regional royal families, but still used for ladies from those families: Aishi 
  • Used at the start or finish of any sentence when addressing someone senior to you: La 
  • A title meaning teacher, used when addressing someone more knowledgeable than you, but also for any monk or policeman: Lebeh

Other essential phrases are:

  • I don’t know/have: Dzongkha – Meshe, Sharchop – Mastong
  • There isn’t any/not here: Mindu
  • Hello: Kuzuzampo, shortened to Kuzampo, or Kuzu for people you know well
  • Thank you: Kardinchay
  • Good: Dzongkha – Leh-shum, Sharchop – Lekpa
  • Very/very much: Nameh Sameh (literally ‘beyond the earth and the sky’)
  • Goodbye is not usually used
  • Chilli: ema (in nearly every meal so important to recognize if you’re going to 'have your head blown off')
  • Cheese: datse (also in most dishes as a curry with potatoes, spinach, mushrooms)
  • Churned butter tea: Suja
  • Milk tea: Naja (our normal tea, but with lots of milk and sugar)
  • Water: Dzongkha – chhu, Sharchop – ri (also meaning 'river', 'stream' or 'going to the toilet')
  • Alcohol (usually a distilled maize): ara (or nearly any word with chang in it – bangchang / singchang / changkey)
  • Rice or food: Tuoe
  • Potatoes: Kewa
  • Mushrooms: Shamu

Dzongkha and other local languages are tonal, so I find it hard to hear the subtle differences. I continue to recognize words or phrases which are repeated and have to ask my friends and colleagues what the difference is between words like lam and lam ('monk' and 'road') or dom, dom and dom ('bear', 'box' and 'trousers').

Words taken from other languages are mainly used to describe concepts or other things that don’t traditionally exist in Bhutan (or that don't have specific names), such as:

  • Vegetables: Subji (from Udru/Hindi)
  • Green veg/spinach: Saag (from Urdu/Hindi)
  • Car, truck, other mechanical vehicles: Gari
  • Market/shopping area: Bazaar

In addition to the recent adoption of democracy, Bhutan has been rapidly catching up with the rest of the world’s technological developments. TVs and rice cookers can be found in some of the most remote villages, powered by micro hydropower or solar panels. The Department of Education has been distributing computers to higher secondary schools and most small towns now have booths for computer games or access to the internet. As this exposure to the outside world continues, new words are needed in Dzongkha. The government’s Dzongkhag Development Commission has been charged with the task of trying to identify the most suitable translations for this influx of new concepts.

Challenges have already been encountered in the newly elected National Assembly, where the MPs have to debate policy and governance issues in Dzongkha. Not unsurprisingly, this is taxing for even the most educated MP – where ‘typist’ has been translated as ‘person who uses finger punching mechanical writing machine’. So let’s hope some more snappy translations will be found (and quickly)!