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Use of English terms about COVID-19 miffs many



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By Aashish Mishra

Kathmandu, Apr. 16: Mamata Giri, 68, does not understand English properly. She cannot speak the language, nor does she read or write in it, which has not really put her at any loss in her life, until now.
An avid consumer of news, Giri tries to stay updated on the coronavirus pandemic and its situation in Nepal, but complains that she can’t understand much of it. “The Nepali media use terms like ‘quarantine’, ‘isolation’ and ‘throat swab’ which I don’t really get,” she said.
Her problem is also shared by Bhadrakali Pandit. Pandit, 52, completed all her schooling in Nepali medium and is thus stumped when she comes across overly technical English terms. “I exclusively follow Nepali papers and television channels so as to avoid English words and jargons,” she said.
However, she, too, is facing a disadvantage because of the widespread use of English terminologies by the Nepali media to report on the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What is the point of following a Nepali-language media if they are not going to use Nepali words in their reporting?” she questioned. “Are we assuming everyone in Nepal knows English?”
Asked to point out some of the words she found difficult to understand, she presented ‘quarantine’, ‘self-Isolation’ and ‘rapid testing’. “I highly urge the media to use Nepali alternatives for these words because what good will the news do if people don’t understand it?” Pandit said.
Both Giri and Pandit are educated, middle-class Kathmanduites who find the media’s English-heavy coverage of the outbreak hard to comprehend. So, it is not difficult to imagine how hard it must be for illiterate or semi-literate individuals residing in the rural areas of the country to get the information being conveyed to them.
Kiran Dagaura lives in Kanchanpur and is illiterate.
He cannot interpret a word of English and, by extension, does not accurately understand any sentence that uses it. So, for him, the ongoing ‘lockdown’ has not had any meaning over the past two weeks.
“The radio says ‘lockdown’, the police come and tell us to stay inside because of the ‘lockdown’, but what exactly is this ‘lockdown’?” he asked. His grandson has tried to explain the concept of this total closure to him many times but in the absence of a core understanding of the word, he has not been able to get it. “I stay in because my family tells me to, but I honestly don’t get the logic behind it,” he said.
His wife Rachna Devi also gets confused when she hears phrases such as ‘positive report’, ‘negative report’, “PCR testing’, ‘epidemiology’, ‘contact tracing’ and the like. She said, “These days, we turn on the radio and we can’t understand half the stuff being spoken. We [her husband and her] always call our grandson to explain what is going on to us.”
This reliance of vernacular media on English terms to describe the current situation has also sparked a debate on the social media. Many editors and linguists point to the availability of Nepali terms like ‘bandabandi’ and ‘ekantabaas’ to denote COVID-19 buzzwords like ‘lockdown’ and ‘isolation/quarantine’ respectively. Even when Nepali expressions are not readily available, they say that phrases like ‘droota parikshyan’ for ‘rapid testing’ and ‘samparka pahichaan’ for ‘contact tracing’ can be coined.
On the other side, supporters of English terms argue that these words denote a very specific concept that Nepali words often cannot. They are already widely used in the Nepali society and have become socially accepted –
along the lines of words like glass, ball and bill.
And they say that their use by officials like the prime minister and the president in their speech and address signals the credibility of these English terms and their use in formal contexts.
Meanwhile, as most media continue to employ these foreign words and phrases in their coverage, Giri tries to understand it by asking her children and others in the house who are more proficient in English than her.
But she is miffed. “If I have to rely on others to get the news then why am I reading the newspapers or watching news channels in the first place,” she said, adding that she would discontinue subscription of her daily Nepali-language newspaper as soon as the crisis is over.
She also posed a question to all the Nepali-language editors and journalists, “What is the use of writing detailed investigative pieces if people can’t understand them easily?”

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