English Education and Dying Languages in Nepal
*Laxmi Prasad Ojha
Because of globalization and development of communication and transportation facilities, the world is shrinking day by day. Nepal is no exception in regard. Because of economic, social and other benefits, people are highly motivated to learn English. People send their children to English medium schools so that the children can master it well. This inclination to English language has badly affected the local languages here. This article is an attempt to bring out this issue of language shift and death due to the growing use of English language in education in Nepal. In this article, I have discussed the history of English language teaching in Nepal, the situation of language, the language policy of government of Nepal and the consequences of language shift and death.
Because of the economic benefits and social prestige, people around the globe are motivated to learn English language. English is no more a language alone; it is a skill required to stand and compete in the international arena. Realising this fact, people in Nepal are also inclined to learn English language in recent years. It is widely used in education here. English language teaching has a ‘big market’ in Nepal with hundreds of thousands of people learning and thousands of teachers engaged in it.
But teaching and learning of English language has some dark sides too. Because of the growing interest of people to learn this language, the indigenous languages are losing their native speakers. People are sending their children to English medium schools hoping that their children will master that ‘essential’ skill.
English education in Nepal
Formal education in Nepal started with teaching and learning of the English language. This continued for many years as the Ranas used English as a language to keep themselves superior to the rest of the people. In this regard, Giri (2010) mentions:
English language education formally started after the historic visit of Jung Bahadur Rana to England. After the visit, he adopted a different approach to the language because during his association with the British, he learned the power of the language and its ability to create superiority. (p. 93)
But, after the introduction of democracy in 1950, Nepali language got priority. The government made Nepali the medium of instruction and it was the only language used in education. Languages other than Nepali were denied from the use in education. New Education System Plan (NESP) opened the door to establish private schools. Private schools won the heart of people delivering quality education. Quality education for many people was making the students proficient in English. These schools sold the dream of English language to the middle class people.
People saw that those with good English got better position in various I/NGOs. They got scholarships to study abroad. Private companies and offices started making extensive use of English language and those who did not have proficiency in English were denied of the job and position. This raised the parents’ expectation to send their children to English medium, schools. The private schools boomed after the restoration of multiparty party democracy in 1990.
Because of the growing interest of the parents towards English medium schools, the number of students in government-aided schools is decreasing. Now, because of the same reason, many government-aided schools are shifting to English medium education. “Parents’ growing aspiration to educate their children in English-medium school in the most significant factor behind the expansion of English in schools” (Phyak, 2011). People are ready to pay any price to provide English education to their children. They think that the private schools deliver quality education. For most of the people, quality education is confined to passing the exams with good grades and being proficient in English. English medium education has emerges as a way to sell the dreams provide quality education. Therefore as Giri (2010) asserts “The place of English in Nepal today is undeniable and incontestable” (p. 92).
Language situation and government policy in Nepal
More than 6000 languages are used in the world (Crystal, 2003). Nepal is very rich in terms of linguistic diversity with 123 languages spoken. Nepal is one of the 23 countries with more than a hundred languages (Ethnologue, 2005).
According to Census 2011, there are 123 languages spoken in Nepal as mother tongue. Nepali is spoken as mother tongue by 44.6% of the total population, followed by Maithali by 11.7%, Bhojpuri by 6%, Tharu by 5.8%, Newari by 3.25, Bajika, Magar and Doteli by 3% each and Urdu by 2.6% of the total population (CBS, 2012). The languages in Nepal have genetic affiliations to four different language families: Indo-European (Indo-Aryan), Sino-Tibetan, Austro-Asiatic, and Dravidian.
Some people think that the use of a single language unifies the nation but in a long run, the people other than the native speakers feel deprived of their rights. They feel being discriminated by the government. Panchayat era in the past had tried to foster one nation, one costume, one language (ek des ek bhes, ek bhasa) policy and kept the Nepali language and its speakers at the centre. That triggered frustration and hatred of the non-Nepali speaking people towards Nepali language. Recent conflicts and disputes on language issues are partly result of the same.
The government of Nepal has made very little effort to systematize the use of languages in the country. Many government-aided schools are shifting from Nepali to English as medium of instruction. The Constitution of Nepal 1990 had made Nepali the official language but the Interim Constitution of Nepal 2007 removed the tradition of the ‘language of nation’ and ‘national languages’ distinction mentioned in the 1990 constitution. The same provision was continued in the recently promulgated Constitution of Nepal. The constitution asserts that all languages spoken in Nepal are ‘national languages’. The Nepali language has been regarded as the official language of the federal government. But it shall not be deemed to have hindered the use of mother tongue in local bodies and offices as the state governments can allocate one or more local languages besides Nepali as the official languages in the respective states.
Though people are free to use their language in education and mass media, they are not really interested in doing so. One of the most important reasons for this interest is the ‘token value’ of the English language. It is the language of education, trade, and mass media. It is no more a language of the elites as in the past; it is the language of the middle class and the commoners, too.
Biased attitude of the state towards minority languages is the major reason for the lack of equal development of all languages in Nepal. Only recently, the government has realised the importance of diversity in language and cultural and started some programmes to preserve them. Most people in developing countries learn foreign languages because they provide them with immediate economic benefits. The mushrooming English language institutes around the country stand as an evidence that learning new languages has become a craze among the Nepalese people.
Language shift and death: the consequences in Nepal
Many languages in Nepal are on the verse of extinction. Many children from minority communities have stopped learning the language used at home. The youths no longer find it interesting to use their mother tongue. They are hesitant to use their ‘own’ languages. People migrate to big towns and cities and want their children to master Nepali and English languages. They don’t see any ‘token value’ attached to learn and use their mother tongue. The private schools have contributed a lot in motivating people to use the English language. The government policy also promotes the use of Nepali and English not the local languages.
Because of the growing trend of globalization and multilingual societies, many people are shifting from their mother tongue to a national and/or international language. “A language dies when nobody speaks it any more” (Crystal, 2003, p. 1).The minority language speakers find themselves ‘linguistically isolated’. When the speakers of a language no longer feel that their language is important to be preserved, they start avoiding their language and thus, the language dies. Language shift has been an integral feature of urbanization and multilingual societies.
For example, people speaking different languages migrate to cities like Kathmandu, Pokhara, Biratnagar, Butwal, Dhangadhi in search of education, job or better life. They don’t find enough people from their linguistic groups to interact. As a result, they use their mother tongue only at home. When their children go to school as second generation migrants, they use Nepali and/or English in schools and with their friends which makes them feel comfortable to communicate in these languages. Gradually, they start using Nepali and/or English with their parents, too. In this way they forget their first language. If many people migrate like this and stop using their languages, the number of speakers using these indigenous languages decreases eventually leading to death of that language. The elders die and the knowledge fades away with them.
It sounds very odd when someone says s/he is a Rai (for an instance) and doesn’t know the Rai language but this has become very common phenomenon in big cities and towns in Nepal these days. Many languages are endangered and are dying. They die mainly because of the parents who think speaking a global language like English will help their children succeed in school and understand the world better. Only the parents and the elders speak the local vernacular languages. In many cases, the children understand their parental language but do not speak it. A generation later, this language is lost. The people feel that their language is inferior and stop using that. They think that speaking English adds value to their lives; a mere illusion!
Speakers of indigenous languages feel compelled to learn Nepali and English languages in Nepal. They abandon their mother tongues in order to succeed economically Toba, Toba, and Rai (2005). But in recent times, the people are also becoming aware of their linguistic rights and the importance of their mother tongue to show their identity. The 2011 census showed a huge increase in the number of languages and dialects spoken in Nepal from 92 to 123. This wasn’t because more languages were being spoken, but because people had become aware and proud of their identities. Besides, many ethnic groups urged the members of their community to register their language though many of them had stopped using their ancestral language.
Dying languages in Nepal
There are many languages which are endangered in Nepal. Most of the languages are losing their speakers every year. This is the result of growing influence and use of Nepali and English language in education, mass media, business and official documents.
According to UNESCO, a language is endangered when parents are no longer teaching it to their children and it is no longer being used in everyday life. UNESCO has identified 62 different languages of Nepal in different stages of endangered. Half the population of the world speaks 20 major languages. 4% of the world’s languages are spoken by 96% of the population. If the current trend continues, 90 percept of the languages used in the world will disappear by the end of this century (Crystal, 2003). More than 11 Nepali languages have already died, 19 are almost extinct, and 23 are endangered. The death of languages, however, isn’t an overnight phenomenon. Languages die after a long period of negligence and lack of attention from their speakers and the governments.
Nepali is the language spoken by almost half the total population in Nepal. At the same time, there are languages with very few speakers. For example, Kusunda language has a single speaker, 75 years old Gyani Maiya Sen. Although, there are other people from the Kusunda tribe still alive, they neither understand nor speak the language. Gyani Maiya is very old now and there will be no-one to speak her language after her death. Dura, a language spoken in Lamjung district, is already extinct.
Languages like Aathpahariya, Bahing, Chintang, Dumi, Jirel, Majhi, Puma and many others need serious attention from the government and other stakeholders. These languages are seriously endangered and will be extinct if effective measures are not taken to preserve them. According to Yadava and Bajracharya (2007) several languages in Nepal are dying for a number of reasons such as the marginal number of speakers, migration to urban areas, the use of Nepali alone in education, administration and mass media and so on”.
Diversity should be celebrated. People should understand that it is a boon not a bane. The superior-inferior attitude to different languages is leading the world towards a monolingual and monocultural place. Linguistic diversity is of great value for the humans but the sociolinguists have failed to make common people understand why preserving a language is important for them.
The government of Nepal should be serious about these issues. The individuals should try to use their languages whenever possible. Positive attitude is the single most powerful force to keep languages alive, while negative one can doom them. No language is superior or inferior in itself; it is the society and the governments that assign certain values to these languages.
The youngsters are learning a wrong concept and attitude about the use of their mother tongues and minority languages. If not worked today, it may be too late. We shouldn’t sacrifice our identity and culture in the name of modernization and globalization. Knowing English is essential in today’s globalized world but we can learn and use the second/foreign languages and maintain our mother tongues together. Now, economic importance seems to have become more important than our heritage and traditions. If we forget our languages, we will lose our origin, identity and values, too. Therefore, we should all be conscious about the preservation of local languages while learning the international language.
Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS). (2012). Population and housing census 2011. Kathmandu: Author.
Crystal, D. (2003). Language death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ethnologue. (2005). http://www.ethnologue.com
Giri, R. A. (2010): Cultural anarchism: the consequences of privileging languages in Nepal, Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 31(1), 87-100
Constitution of Nepal. (2015). Kathmandu: Government of Nepal.
Phyak, P. B. (2011). Beyond the façade of language planning for Nepalese primary education: monolingual hangover, elitism and displacement of local language?, Current Issues in Language Planning, 12(2), 265-287.
Yadava, Y. P. & Bajracharya, P. L. (eds.) (2007). The Indigenous languages of Nepal: situation, policy, planning and coordination. Lalitpur: National foundation of Development of Indigenous Nationalities.
(*Laxmi Prasad Ojha teaches at Department of English Education, Tribhuvan University, Kirtipur, Nepal. Besides, he is a central committee member of NELTA and an editor of NELTA ELT Forum. He often writes on issues of ‘language policy in education’ and ‘teacher development’.)