Just as we cannot choose our parents, or the culture we are born into, we cannot choose our mother tongue. It is the language that is given to us and it forms us before we decide how we want to be formed. In that language we record our first impressions of our world. We communicate our first thoughts. It is the language that takes us long before we can take up another.
For many of us who grew up in Kathmandu, that language happens to be Nepali. We might have adopted English as our medium of education but it is Nepali that defines and embodies our existence. By discarding Nepali, we prevent ourselves from penetrating our most immediate, intimate surroundings. Especially in a country where only a handful know English and nearly all information reaches us in Nepali, the importance of Nepali remains incontestable. Without Nepali, our understanding of our world is bound to be limited. Our social and political awareness is, at best, inadequate. The English language has opened up wondrous possibilities of growth for us but it cannot fulfil the role of Nepali in our lives.
Yet, a notion prevails that incompetence in Nepali is a proof of competence in English. Stumble over every second word while reading a sentence in Nepali and you will be complimented on your command of English. Some are quick to announce that their Nepali is "hopeless". They speak their own language with such deliberate uncertainty, such beaming unfamiliarity.
The reason for this is in our schooling. Parents are anxious for us to speak"good English", which, apart from being necessary for academic success, was also a sign of urban class and culture. Teachers made a rule of speaking in English at all times. They believed speaking in Nepali would ruin our chances of mastering English. Some of us were even fined for uttering Nepali words.
Nepali was made not only unnecessary but also tedious and unfashionable. In our minds it was the language of politicians, bureaucrats and musty old professors. Our introduction to Nepali literature began and ended with Mahendra Mala. Names like Debkota and Parijat, Bhupi and Sama evoked an antiquated world to which we did not belong. Picking up a Nepali newspaper, let alone a Nepali novel, was unthinkable.
Soon, we were unable to speak a Nepali sentence without peppering it with English. Some even believed that a halting Nepali added something to their personality. When school exam results came out they cheerfully declared that they almost failed Nepali. Here is a test: how many of you reading this can say '87' in Nepali? We learned to live with, but not love, our own mother tongue. Alienated from Nepali, half-related to English, we grew up owning neither this nor that.
In the name of quality education, Nepali children are being deprived of a vital source of knowledge and wisdom. Certainly there are many among them who would willingly embrace Nepali if they know the value of doing so. But that can't happen without an environment that nurtures their inclination.
Our educators must use their authority and imagination to encourage the learning of Nepali. They should, first of all, convince their students that inability to read and write in Nepali is a handicap. They must teach them that a solid foundation in Nepali will enhance, rather than impede, their command of English. They can show them the beauty and richness of our language through the works of our poets and writers. And perhaps remind them that every work of literature that has stood the test of time and transcended the boundaries of culture, religion and politics, was written in a mother tongue.
Then maybe children in English-medium schools will pick up a Nepali book-not dutifully but joyfully. Not to be of 'service' (bhasa seba) to the mother tongue but to enrich their lives through the language that essentially shapes their identity.