Nepali belongs to the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family and is closely related to Hindi. It began appearing (in an older form) in what is now Nepal around 300 C.E., when Hindu Indo-Aryans invaded the area from the south, displacing the Buddhist Kirantis. The now unified Nepal is made up of over one hundred ethnic groups, each with its own language and culture. Nepali is the national unifying language and is spoken by most Nepalis as a first or second language (O'Rourke and Shrestha 2008, 9). In addition, Nepali is spoken in other areas of the Himalayan region, including the southern part of Bhutan where it is the language of a substantial and oppressed minority called the Lhotshampa (Riccardi 2003, 539). It is this linguistically-defined minority group, which consists mostly of Hindus and Christians, that inspired my interest in the Nepali language (Chhetri 2004). Since the early 1990's, the government of Bhutan, which is officially a Buddhist kingdom, has instigated a campaign of forced eviction of Lhotshampa residents in southern Bhutan, claiming that they are illegal aliens (Minority Rights Group 2008). Because of this, a large number of Nepali-speaking Bhutanese refugees now live in camps in Nepal.
I came in contact with two of these refugees in my volunteer work with English language learners at Mann Middle School in Colorado Springs. Their families recently immigrated here from a refugee camp in Nepal. They had received only limited English schooling prior to moving to the United States but have, in the first few months they have been here, developed a limited but significant communicative competence. The girl, Khina, comes from a Hindu family, while the boy, Sita Ram, is Christian. Neither has ever been to Bhutan and they seem to have distinctly negative conceptions of Nepal, particularly the squalid camp in "Sector G" where they grew up. They have the distinct advantage in their new environment of having each other to converse with in their native tongue, though even their communication with each other has begun to pick up bits and pieces of an English lexicon.
Nepali acts as a lingua franca in areas throughout the Himalayan region and has a long history of being imposed through military conquest and sustained by political domination. Because of this, there are a number of related dialects that are spoken apart from the standard form, though it is becoming increasingly standardized (Riccardi 2003, 540). It is hard to decipher, given my limited communicative ability with the students and their young age, whether their idiolects represent a non-standard variety of the language or are representative of overall tendencies.
Nepali is now one of the official languages of India and, like Hindi, it uses the Devanagari script (O'Rourke and Shrestha 2008, 9). The alphabet has 67 characters, most of which, unlike English orthography, have a single pronunciation (O'Rourke and Shrestha 2008, 15).