Hi-Hee and Haha-Hihi

Suddenly, I began doubting every English pronunciation I had ever learnt in school from teachers I had admired


In this episode of my series Angrezi, let me share two other interesting encounters I had with English before diving into Ryan’s story. The saga of my own English learning experience.

My uncle decided to open an English medium school in Madhesa of Sunsari district, which was the first of its kind in our village. The school was named Bright Future English School, and caused quite a stir even before it officially opened.

People were intrigued by the word ‘Future’, and the meaning of ‘Bright’ eluded them. One morning, while sipping tea at Bahadurni Thuli Ama’s tea shop, my uncle’s friends could not contain their curiosity any longer, and asked him the meaning of ‘Bright’.

Instead of giving a direct answer, my uncle gave them a clue by asking why the toothpaste brand at the time, ‘Brighter’ was so named. Suddenly, it all made sense to them, including the significance of ‘a bright future’.

Read also: Why do so many Nepali students underperform?, Anita Shrestha

The next incident still gives me a good laugh whenever I remember it. Not far from our village was another English medium school called The Martyr School. We youngsters used to jokingly refer to it as “Damatar, Tamatar”. It was only much later that I finally understood the meaning of ‘martyr’.

The recent Hindi movie 12th Fail tells the true story of Manoj Kumar Sharma, who passed India’s UPSC (like Nepal’s own Public Service Commission) exam and eventually became a police officer on his fourth attempt. There is a scene in the movie where he confidently writes an essay about terrorism from memory during the English exam, only to find out later that the question was actually about tourism.

I can perfectly relate to that feeling. During one exam I remember composing an answer about ‘The Mothers of Nepal’ when the question was actually asking us to write about ‘The Martyrs of Nepal’. Embarrassing.

Now, the story of Ryan. In Grade 9, our English teacher told us the sad story of Ryan who said bye to his mother and hopped on a motorcycle even though he was underage and did not have a driving license. The mother knew this, and told him to drive safely.  

Read also: Learning rubbish, memorising gibberish, Yugottam Koirala and Yugeshwor Koirala

A few hours later, she got a call from the police. Ryan had been in an accident. She rushed to the hospital, but Ryan did not make it. After his tragic death, the mother felt immense regret and blamed herself for not stopping him. She constantly thinks about him, imagining that one day he will step in through the door with a cheerful “Hi, Mom!”

The moral of the story: do not drive without a license. Our English teacher narrated the story in Nepali, and to add a touch of humour, he changed Ryan’s name to Ram Bahadur. I can still vividly recall him narrating to the class: "उस्कै आमालाई लागि रहन्छ कि राम बाहादुर घर आउँछ हाई मोम, म आएँ भन्दै” (His  mother felt Ryan would come back, saying “Hi Mom, I’m home”).

But when he said “Hi” he did not pronounce it /haɪ/, he said it like “hee”. And guess what? Thenceforth we all copied the way he said “hee” when he meant “hi”, repeating “हि मोम, म घर आएँ”. 

Back in school, we never greeted our friends, so I did not use the word “Hi” to greet friends till college. If only we had the same chapter in Grade 10, then Thoo Sir would have taught us properly. I finally learned the correct pronunciation, but it did bring some embarrassment.

Read also: Nepal’s hard working students overseas, Sonia Awale

I enrolled at Janata Multiple College in Itahari for Proficiency Certificate Level, with English as one of my majors. Being the last student to join, I was new to everyone. As a major in English, when people approached me, they naturally said “Hi, I am phalano” or “Hi, I am dhiskano”. I reciprocated in the same manner. The only difference was in how they pronounced “Hi” and my response was always “Hee, I am Anbika”. I did not understand why they would always giggle when I said that.

A new friend of mine tried to correct me, but out of habit I continued with my “Hee” until our first-year English major teacher, Kedar Sir, overheard me one day in class saying, “Hee, I am Anbika”. He corrected me in front of the entire class. “Anbika, it is /haɪ/, हि भन्न कल्ले सिकायो?” (Who taught you to say Hee?) he exclaimed so loudly that even students dozing off at the back woke up.

To be honest, it had never occurred to me that even teachers could make mistakes till that moment. I was a little embarrassed. The embarrassment was manageable, but it led me to a state of utter confusion. Suddenly, I began doubting every English pronunciation I had ever learnt in school till then from teachers I had admired. I assumed that Kedar Sir, being an English major teacher at college, must have a stronger command of the language than my high school teacher. Thus, I decided to follow Kedar Sir to unlearn what I learnt in school.

That day, I did not tell Kedar Sir where I got the funny pronunciation from. I later discovered that all my friends had some issues with English since we all came from the same school background where English was taught in Nepali.

Back in the early 2000s, English was not as important as it is today. It did not open up job opportunities, or help navigate work abroad. People who tried to sprinkle English words while speaking Nepali were regarded as show-offs. Twenty years later, English proficiency is given much more importance and we have come a long way.  

Anbika Giri is a novelist and author of children’s books in Nepali. Angrezi is her monthly column in Nepali Times about learning English in Nepal. Her previous columns were Mai Commin, Sir and Thappad