1-7 February 2013 #641

Speaking in tongues

The responsibility to preserve and nurture the diversity of Nepal’s linguistic heritage lies with the state
Disagreement over the form of federalism killed the Constituent Assembly last May over demands for self-rule for Nepal’s bigger ethnic groups and giving more emphasis to their languages.

Identity politics became an easy way for political parties, especially the Maoists, to garner support but it did tap into historical grievances about marginalisation and a long-felt belief that promotion of the lingua franca was undermining the existence of the country’s other languages.

The 2011 census showed a surprising increase in the number of languages and dialects spoken in Nepal from 103 to 123. This wasn't because more languages were being spoken, but because people had become aware and proud of their identities.

As anthropologist Mark Turin argues on page 12-13 Nepal’s linguistic diversity mirrors the country’s ecological diversity and is an important identity marker. Language is an emotive issue, and if not treated adequately can lay the seeds of future conflict, especially when leaders cannot resist the temptation to make populist capital out of it at election time.

In the past, Nepali was promoted as Nepal’s national language because the fragile nation state needed symbols of nationalism and unity vis-à-vis Hindi in India. Today Mero Nepali and Hamro Nepali books, successors of Mahendra Mala, continue to foist antiquated nationalism on students from Darchula to Panchthar and from Manang to Nawalparasi.

While Nepali became the identifier for the Gorkhaland movement in India, where Nepali speakers were considered one ethnic group whether they were Limbu, Gurung or Bahun, back in the motherland we have seen a challenge to the linguistic hegemony of Nepali.


Last year’s census shows that 11 million out of 26 million Nepalis (around 45 per cent) consider Nepali their mother tongue. Maithili is second with three million speakers (about 12 per cent) followed by one and half million Bhojpuri speakers. While the national language and the Tarai languages thrive, the remaining 120 languages along with those that did not make it into the census, are fighting a losing battle against the homogenising forces of Nepali and English.

The importance of marks in Nepali in SLC and subsequent civil service exams essentially puts non-Nepali speakers at a disadvantage and lies at the root of their under-representation in government and other salaried jobs. Pragmatic parents, therefore, prefer that their children learn Nepali and English in school, eroding proficiency in their own mother tongue.

Surveys have shown that children learn best in their mother tongue, and students the world over are more than capable of learning multiple languages simultaneously. But most public schools are on tight budgets and cannot afford to offer classes in local languages. Private schools are better endowed, but they respond to parents’ demand for English education.

In 2011, Dharmashila Chapagai, Nepal’s State Minister for Health and Population, spent seven agonising minutes labouring through her speech in English at a UN meeting on HIV/AIDS in New York. Bloggers ridiculed Chapagai for her diction and posted deriding comments. She could have easily spoken in Nepali, but chose a language she was clearly uncomfortable with because she saw it as a status symbol.

The goal should be to make Nepalis trilingual: fluent in their mother tongue or local language, fluent in Nepali so they can communicate with other Nepalis, and fluent in English so they can speak with the outside world.

Nepal’s languages are dying. The number of people who speak one of them, Kusunda, is down to single digits. When a language becomes extinct, we lose a culture, a whole way of life, and a vocabulary of indigenous knowledge forever. The responsibility to protect citizens lies with the state, and so does the responsibility to preserve and nurture the diversity of our linguistic heritage.

Otherwise, by the time the next census comes around in 2021, many of the 123 languages will have vanished.

Listen to former State Minister for Health and Population Dharmashila Chapagai's speech at a UN meeting on HIV/AIDS in New York in 2011.

Read also:

Mind your languages, MARK TURIN

It is a race against time to document and support Nepal's increasingly endangered linguistic diversity

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