Rational Multi-lingual Policy
Dr. Narad Bharadwaj
With the introduction of federal republican system of government in the country, the issue of language appears poised to take centre stage in public discourse. The elected left government may soon face a challenge to come out with a linguistic policy that will not only contribute to strengthen the bond of national integrity but also to develop competitive capacity of the people to steer their lives through the global society. As a multi-ethnic and multicultural country, Nepal has a rich linguistic heritage which has remained one of the unbreakable binding thread of nationalism. However, all the languages in use in the Nepali society are not at the same level of development. Nepali is the most developed and dominant language which is spoken by 41 per cent of the total population and enjoys the status of a national language.
Other minority languages, such as Newari, Maithali, Bhojpuri, Abadhi and Tharu, to mention a few, have also been given the status of national languages in the Constitution of Nepal 2015, but these languages are not recognised as the languages for official transactions. In the past, the unitary monarchical government had given special protection and official status to Nepali language with Devenagari script, neglecting the development and promotion of other minority language heritages. As a result, languages like Newari and Maithali, which had flourished to the level of owning illustrious literatures and official status in the mediaval times, were relegated to obvilion.
With the restoration of federal democratic system of government, the linguistic aspirations of the people have been awakened. The minority people are demanding that their languages should be given official status legitimising them to be used for official transactions with the provincial and local governments. These aspirations are genuine and reflective of collective conciousness of self-identity. In the wake of 1990 People’s Movement, attempts were made by the people of Kathmandu, Dhanusa and Rajbiraj to use Newari and Maithali languages in official transaction with the local bodies. But their endeavours were foiled when the Supreme Court issued an order requiring the use of Nepali language as the only language of official transaction on 1 June 1999.
In a country where 125 ethnic groups and 123 languages exist, giving justice to all the languages by awarding them the status official language is not only impossible but also impractical because of inadequate level of development of many of the minority languages and the small population of their users. However, the constitutional protection of all the languages have been guaranteed in the Constitution of Nepal 2015 and some of the languages which have developed their literatures and possess grammar, have adequate vocabularies needed in complex administrative functions, litigaion in courts and imparting education in schools and must be given official status.
However, it has to be admitted that all the minority languages have not been as developed and widespread in use to qualify for being an official language. By virtue of being understood by the people of all ethnicities of the country, Nepali language has been a lingua franca of the country. This language has already built a cross-ethnic appeal and acceptibility. It will not be possible for any other linguistic group to supercede this language and provide an alternative bridge of interpersonal communication across cross-ethnic socialisation. At the present situation, some languages can be used as one of the official languages at local and provincial level. But it will not be possible for them to compete with the Nepali language in the spectrum of use and comprehensibility.
In some provinces specially in Province 2 and Province 7 where Maithali and Tharu languages are spoken by a sizable number of the people, the issue of language threatens to take the form of a banner of political mobilisation. The members of the provincial assembly of Province 2 refused to take oath in Nepali language on 21 January 2018 when it was read out to them by the oldest member of the assembly Laganlal Chaudhary. They repeated their oath in their own respective mother tongues which looked disruptive and unparliamentary.
What happened in Province 2, cannot form a pattern for the rest of the country but it is a premonition that linguistic issue is in for militant mobilisation in the future, demanding a rational policy which can resolve the language issue paving the way for better linguistic integration in the country.
It is a human nature to have attachment to the native language which happens to play a dominant part in forming a cultural universe of a person’s life. But the fact of life is that many languages in the world are dying away. According to statistics, one language is going exitnct in every 14 days. Of the total 7,000 languages that are spoken around the world, only 6,909 are living today (Rimal, 10 February 2018. Gorkhapatra). Even in Nepal, we have seen languages of marginal indigenous groups of people disappearing or going into disuse rapidly.
A language is a tool. We can carry it only as long as it serves the purpose of social interaction. With the globalisation human society, languages spoken by a specific clustures of society is becoming irrelevant. The ability to communicate in multiple languages is becoming an asset to land a good job, gain competitive advantage and acquire social prestige. The integrated global society is creating situations in which multi-lingual capacity is putting people way ahead of others.
Mother tongues play a great role in framing psychosocial security, forming social bonds and personality development of individuals. Language, like native land, provides an anchor of safe sanctuary to homogenous communities. But the battle of survival has become so complex that it has to be fought in alien lands with compititors who speak different languages. So, retreating into tiny islands of linguistic safe haven is full of risks, putting communites on a way to extinction.
It has been proved that children brought up and educated in multi-lingual environment are better prepared for fulfilling socialisation and gaining access to competitive job markets in their adulthood. Psychologist Agnis Kovacs’s recent studies have revealed that the intellignce and mental capacity of bilingual children is better than those of monolingual children.Yudhijit Bhattacharjee of the New York Times, also writes that bilingual experience improves people’s ability for ‘planning, solving problems and performing various other mentally demanding tasks’. Nepal is a small country with a vast diversity not only in ethnicity and languages but also in geographical diversity. It is not likely to develop and prosper if we think about it in terms of a dreary landscape of mono lingual clusters instead of a vibrant flower garden of diversity as envisages by the unifier of this country.