English in Nepal: Where do we Stand?

Educated in India, Nepal and Germany, Dr. Tikaram Poudel currently teaches at School of Education Kathmandu University. Dr Poudel is well-known for his studies on morpho-syntax and semantics of case, tense, aspect and field linguistics of South Asian languages. His studies on the interface between ergativity and individual level predication, cumulative and separative morphology and affix suspension have been well received. Recently, Dr Poudel has been concentrating on the socio-cultural impact of English on contemporary Nepalese society.

Dr. Prem Phyak pursued his PhD in Second Language Studies from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, USA. Currently, he is an assistant professor of English education at the Central Department of Education, Tribhuvan University. His areas of interest include English in multilingual contexts, language policy and planning, youth engagement in language practices, critical pedagogy, language ideology, language and public space, and culturally sustaining pedagogies and qualitative research. Dr. Phyak has a MA in TESOL from the Institute of Education (IOE), University College London (UCL), UK and M.Ed. in English Education from Tribhuvan University, Nepal. His publication includes Engaged Language Policy and Practices (with Kathryn A. Davis) from Routledge. In addition, his publications have appeared in journals such as Language Policy, Language in Society, Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, and Current Issues in Language Planning.

(Following is the interview that one of the editors of NELTA ELT Forum, DN Joshi had with the researcher and linguists Dr. Paudel and Dr. Phyak)

1. NELTA ELT Forum would like to welcome you both in August issue. How is your life going?

Dr. Poudel:  Thank you DN ji. It’s going on well. I have been enjoying semester break of the University.

Dr. Phyak:  Thank you DN Ji!  I have been involved in different language policy related programs. Doing well.

2. Are we in the position to call Nenglish, the English used in Nepal? What is your take on it?

Dr. Poudel:  Its really a great question DN Ji. I don’t think, linguistically, we are in the position to call Nenglish, though we use English to a greater extent than in the past. We have not been able to codify it properly. We need a proper reference grammar of English that we use here.  There should be proper research on phonological process, morphology, syntax and even in discourse.  Still we have a long way to go working on phonology, morphology and syntax.

Dr. Phyak: This largely depends on how you perceive the use of language. If you perceive language from a linguistic perspective, language needs to have standard normative rules that speakers are expected to follow. If we see language not as a standardized entity but as a spoken practices, we clearly see that there is no normative uniformity in the use of English. So, it is important to see English from a sociolinguistic and speakers’ point of view. Regarding the question of standard language, I don’t believe that there is a ‘standard language’;it is just an ideology;it is a myth and constructed. It is necessary to become more adaptive when we talk about use of English in multilingual contexts. Whether you call Nenglish or Nepalese English, there is use of English. For me, it is not linguists who decide what language is standard. It’s users of language that matters. But of course, developing a corpus is necessary to understand practices of English in Nepal.  

3. Regarding the entry of English in Nepal, what can be the causative agents in your opinion?

Dr. Poudel: I worked in historical linguistics. I discussed it in one my papers. It was when Prithvi Narayan Shah attacked the Kathmandu Valley, one of the kings of Kathmandu asked the British rulers in India for help. At that time Knox visited Kathmandu. Interaction between Nepalese and British rulers took place in around 1770. In 1791, Tibet Nepal war broke out. In 1802, British residency was established in Nepal. There were some prominent authors like Hamilton, Brian Hodgson etc. It was the beginning of English in Nepal.

Regarding examples of contemporary English, we do not have the records of the use of English of early period of the contact, but we have a good corpus of English in Nepal especially in print, though we have less records of spoken form of English in Nepal. However, it is true that English in Nepal came from India through English people. The rulers in Kathmandu understood the power of English. Later, Jung Bahadur Rana, went to London. Britishers were elite and he got impressed. As a result, he established Durbar High School, Nepal’s first modern school with the medium of instruction in English, in 1854, I think, mainly for the children of Ranas. He thought that it would make a distinction between rulers and ruled.

Dr. Phyak: I don’t like to speak more on history. But the rulers’ relationship with Eeast India Company is the main agent. More Dr. Poudel has spoken on this issue. If I focus on present, I can say globalization is one of main factors. We are in the era of trans-nationalism. Global neoliberal discourses which considers language as commodity has been key to the use of English of multiple domains. English has become one of the dominant commodities. I consider there is a paradigm shift in how we used to think and how we think now about language.

4. Use of any language in the different land for a long time, may cause the emergence of new variety or different features. What do you think of English in Nepal. Could you please enumerate some features of English spoken in Nepal?

Dr. Poudel:  It’s another good question DN Ji. Mostly I feel, the difference in phonology. For example, /sk/ cluster or many other consonant clusters, it is difficult for Nepalese English speakers. As a result, we speak /iskul/. Some of the phonemes of Standard English are not available in Nepali language.  In such cases, users do not make any difference between words like sheep and sip. Further, in my experience, speakers have problems in use of articles. It is really a big problem even for EFL teachers.

Dr. Phyak: It’s a very difficult question DN Ji.  I have not done any study on the features of Nepalese English. However, interaction with the students and other speakers triggered me to find out some significant features. Code switching/mixing takes place quite often. You can see new entries that are not in Standard English dictionary. Similarly, in writing ‘it’ is used frequently which is a kind of restricted code.  Further, lack of third person subject-verb agreement is another feature I have observed.

5. What sorts of impacts of English do you realize on indigenous languages after English language got the position of the language in the government offices after Nepali?

Dr. Poudel:  Though the government offices accept documents written in English or Nepali, the English language has not gained the official position yet. When I talk of impact on indigenous languages, I think, Nepali, as a dominant language because of the historical reasons, has more intense than the impact of English. I am talking as a linguist, not as an activist. The point is that we have no any instance of shift of the speakers of indigenous speech community of Nepal to English but it is more frequent to Nepali.  Therefore, English is not a threat to the indigenous languages of Nepal, though borrowing of lexicon from English is quite common. Such borrowings are also, in most cases through Nepali and these borrowing rarely affect the grammatical system of these languages.

Once English has become the language of government offices after Nepali, it is taught in schools. Gradually, youngsters shift to English as it is the dominant language politically, socially and economically. People think that having good knowledge of English brings wider scope. One day there may come the condition when nobody will speak indigenous languages. But shift is not direct. It moves to Nepali first and then only English.

Dr, Phyak: As Dr.  Poudel said, English has not gained the position of an official language. But we cannot confine language within a normative boundary. Language is not normative entity. So whether you call English as an official language or not, we have been using it for official purposes. That is why, I always have hard time with people who talk about normative language policy. They make language policy on the basis of normative practices. But it is important to recognize or legitimate what people are actually using.

Regarding impact of English on indigenous languages, I have slightly a different view. English as a language is not a problem. Problem is how we legitimize its power in relation to local languages. Monolingual concept doesn’t work in multilingual situations; the problem lies in our language ideology. We are assuming and taking for granted that ‘English is everything’; it is a panacea. More importantly, we are creating binary opposition between English and indigenous languages which is totally wrong. We should take a multilingual perspective.

6. How do you perceive the prospect of Nepalese English?

Dr. Poudel: English is given much priority by the people of Nepal.  But we don’t have a long-recorded history of English in Nepal. It may be around fifty years that it has been influencing Nepalese minds intensely. It is not enough to see changes. We have some archetypes but corpus of Nepalese English, in its true sense, has not been created.

Dr. Phyak: Whether you call it Nepalese English or Nenglish, there is always English which differs from so called Standard English. My point is that there is use of English in Nepal.  Documentation is necessary. We need to document how English is used by Nepali speakers.

7. Your suggestions to bring Nenglish in a concrete form?

Dr. Poudel:  Being a linguist, I strongly request all the scholars, and growing scholars to carry out the research on the ways teachers use English in writing and speaking, the way news readers use English, and writing on the newspapers. We need to delve into the depth and bring it in standard form. Likewise, I suggest universities, youngsters to focus on how aspects of English used in Nepal. I request all language related organizations to work collaboratively. Let’s work on phonology, syntax and semantics of English used in Nepal based on the actual use of English in Nepal..

Dr. Phyak: I agree with Dr. Poudel.  We should do research on how people use English. Let’s take language from a multilingual perspective. The use of English by multilingual speakers are always different from how monolingual use it. We are already bilingual or trilingual. The young generation must explore how English is actually used in Nepal in media, tourism, schools and universities to develop a corpus of English in Nepal. We should take a bottom-up approach. But unfortunately our universities and professional organizations are mostly reproducing knowledge not involved in creation and production of knowledge which is built upon local realities and practices.


One response

  1. Lovely ! I enjoyed reading it. The views of two linguists based on their expertise and observations are worthreading. We should take languages in multilingual sense, not in binary. Thank you D.N. sir.


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