This happened in the first few months of my teaching career at a private boarding school in Lalitpur. It was one of the terminal exams in the school. I had finished handing out the answer sheets to the students, and was waiting for the bell to ring so that I could hand out the question papers. But, somehow there was no ring and one of the students from class 10 said, “Time became already”.
“What!!!” I exclaimed.
He said it again in a matter-of-fact-ly way, “Time became”.
It was the first time I’ve heard someone say that. At that time, I thought that it was his idiosyncrasy, this expression was his exclusive error. But I soon realized that the expression “time became” along with late became, right became, wrong became, homework became and countless of other became-expressions were quite common among the students and even the teachers in my school.
And once I was aware of this phenomenon, these became-expressions began to hit my ears from all directions. From the primary classrooms to the secondary ones. From the playground to the library. Became, I realized, was omnipresent in the school.
It was an epidemic. That’s what I initially labeled it as. I shouted out at the students. You can’t say ‘time became’. I corrected them. It’s not ‘late became’, it should be ‘I’m getting late’ or ‘It is getting late’. There was no respite, though. I started correcting their numerous other expressions as well. I made them write down the correct expressions. 20 times each. I made them speak aloud those expressions. 10 times each. I warned them. I threatened them. I preached them. But all in vain.
A week later, the students were back to their original English. Inside the classroom, they tried to be aware of my presence and my frown. Outside the classroom, they were back to their original self. Carefree. Spontaneous. Happy. It was like, they just didn’t give a hoot about the correctness of English language.
So, what’s unique with this “became-epidemic”?
The meaning of become/became usually translates to बन्नु [bannu] or हुनु (भयो) [hunu / bhayo] in Nepali. The first usage of ‘become’ as ‘बन्नु’ is very literal, as in:
Hari became a doctor.
हरी डाक्टर बन्यो।
[Hari doctor banyo]
However, the literal meaning बन्नु oftentimes gets morphed into हुनु (and the past form भयो) with the usages like:
Hari became first in the exam.
हरी जाँचमा फस्ट भयो।
[Hari jaanch ma first bhayo]
Or, here’s a context where भयो translates so smoothly into became. The bell has just gone off signaling the end of the class. The teacher is collecting papers from the students. One of the students has not finished writing it yet. And, the teacher asks, “Became?” (भयो ?) [bhayo?] The student says,
“Not became” (भएको छैन।) [bhayeko chhaina].
Hence because of this interference or influence of become’s Nepali meaning, students find it easier to make expressions like late became, wrong became, problem became and homework became. It’s short. It’s understandable. And, the best thing, it works among their context.
There are several other expressions as well, which have become regular among my students. One is ending a sentence with ‘and’, as in:
Student 1: (He wants to copy the answer.) Give your copy.
Student 2: Haven’t finished and.
This usage of ‘and’ to end a sentence is just as rampant as the usage of ‘became’. ‘Stop pushing and’ or ‘I am not coming and’ or ‘Not became and’.
The usual meaning of ‘and’ as a conjunction is (र) [ra] in Nepali, but students use it as a discourse marker to mean (अनी) [ani]. They translate the Nepali structure, for instance:
सकेकै छैन अनी [sakekai chhaina ani] into ‘Not finished and’.
This interesting phenomenon got me into thinking a lot. I turned the pages of Second Language Acquisition and Applied Linguistics books. I discussed about this with my teachers and friends. I googled around if this type of sentence structures were normal in other ESL communities as well. I came to realize that it was a normal phenomenon among the learners of a second or foreign language. It also got me thinking that my initial reaction and judgment was pretty immature and naïve. I was rude. And I was sarcastic to the students.
So this question – why do the students speak English in so Nepali way? – keeps prickling my brain. I have stopped correcting the students. I feel more curious and more confused, but I don’t get angry or frustrated anymore. These days, I just try to make my students aware of these ‘became-expressions’. But I don’t overtly correct them, hoping that one day they will pick up the appropriate expression on their own.
I am thankful to the became-expressions as they have helped me understand a part of second language learning. They have helped me gain insights and amend my teaching philosophy. My mission in my earlier days of teaching English was – not to speak Nepali at all in the classroom. Now, I don’t teach English without throwing in few Nepali expressions whenever I feel it aids the learning of my students.