English As Official Language
Dr. Narad Bharadwaj
With the completion of the transition from the unitary to the federal system of government, a new debate for evolving a pragmatic linguistic policy has started in the country. In the midst of the ongoing linguistic discourse, the possibility of introducing English as one of the functional languages is also being debated. In provinces with the concentration of a sizable homogenous population, the demand for declaring the dominant language of the province as the official language is strong. Smaller linguistic clusters which are in marginal minority are also aspiring for a national language policy which can protect and promote their languages.
For a multi-lingual country like Nepal where 125 ethnic identities and 123 living languages vie for attention and recognition, it is not easy for any government to come out with a viable and sound language policy. However, a language policy which reflects and represents the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic and multi-linguistic reality has become indispensable.
It is the characteristic of all ethnic and cultural clusters of a society to be sentimental about their icons of identity. Language is one of them. Language provides people a sense of belonging, security and uniqueness of existence. However, it is basically a tool of communication. A society embraces language only as long as it serves the purpose of cross-cultural communication, evolves adequate vocabulary, functions within a coherent grammatical structure and develops literature. Most of the languages existing in Nepal except Nepali, Maithili, and to some extent, Newari are limited to fulfilling the need of oral form only. So long as a language does not have a consistent written form, it is not expected to serve the purpose of being an official language.
Even in case of language like Maithili, which is relatively well developed, has a wider vocabulary and literature, lack of cross-cultural comprehensibility of the language, precluding it from being a successful official language at national level. Its status as a regional official language is, however, uncontested in Province 2.
In such linguistic scenario of the country, introduction of English as a neutral language of communication and awarding it a status of an official language sounds reasonable. English language already occupies a respectable position in the Nepali society. It is used by most private schools and colleges as a medium of instruction; it has become a functional language in the Ministry of External Affairs, diplomatic missions and national and international non-governmental organisations. It is also widely used in the field of tourism.
A language has a power relation. Its expansion and decline is correlational to the expansion and decline of political and economic power. It is true of all languages, including English or Nepali. In history the language spoken by people in power has held dominating position. During the heyday of Roman Empire, the Latin language served as the lingua franca of Europe, despite the fact that it was a minority language in the entire territory of the empire. When France was at the centre of global power in the 18th century, French acquired the respect and recognition of the global language.
Since the 17th through mid-20th century English appeared at the global stage superseding both Latin and French languages in being the most widely used language as a medium of instruction, cross-national communication and as a language of accessing to scientific, technical and academic recourses. With the fall of colonialism in the second-half of the twentieth century, the domination of English has been on the wane but it is still the single most dominant language as a lingua franca in the global society.
In Nepal’s context, the Nepali language with Devnagari script occupies the most dominant position in the society and it is also playing an uncontested role as the lingua franca throughout the country. Despite its present position of the most dominant language it was not so throughout its entire historical period. Sanskrit and Newari languages had served as the official languages in certain historical period enjoying the protection and promotion by the state.
The Nepali language is found to have acquired dominant status during the military campaign of national unification launched by Prithvi Narayan Shah in the mid-19th century. In this sense, the present status of this language is also correlational to power.
Today, minority languages are aspiring for equal treatment of their languages. But the problem is that almost all the minority languages are not understood by all the employees, concerned officials, the elected representatives and responsible people who lead government and security agencies. In such a situation, a huge quantity of documents needs to be translated back and forth involving huge cost and time.
This situation could be overcome by adopting English language as one of the official languages at local, provincial and national level. English as an official language can help neutralize resentment of minority language community against disproportionate share of Nepali language in official transaction though its place as a common language of the country remains unrivalled.
English is one of the five major international languages accepted by the United Nations. Other four languages are Spanish, French, Russian and the Chinese. However, about 85 per cent of the international organisations use English as one of their official languages. English language is being used by nearly 90 per cent of Asian international organisations (ttp://www.thehistoryofenglish.com/issues_global.html). Most of the countries of South Asia, East Asia and Africa use English as one of the official languages even in administrative functions.
The upcoming younger generation educated in private boarding schools and colleges is comfortable in using English as a link language to communicate with people with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. It is also playing a positive role in dismantling language barriers among the people belonging to diverse ethnic and cultural identity groups. English language provides people with ability to gain better access to scientific, technical and academic resources than does Nepali or any other minority languages.
People tend to be concerned that the adoption of an international language an official medium of communication might weaken national and other minority languages eventually paving way for their disappearance. This may be a genuine concern especially in the context of ever declining trend of languages of the world. Statistics show that about 80 per cent of the more than 6,000 living languages of the world may go extinct by the end of this century and there is no use in crying over it.
Minority languages are slowly going extinct as the user population of these languages decrease below critical point. The government policy of protecting and promoting marginalised languages may help some languages from being swamped by dominant languages, but the inevitable trend of globalisation and the consequent spread of international languages are sure to overshadow the national languages.
With the growth multiculturalism, cross-cultural migration and ever increasing trend of urbanisation, the concept of mono-cultural and linguistic concept are becoming unsustainably obsolete ideas. We should stop being carried away by emotions attached with symbols and icons of antiquity and have the courage to adopt what is sustainable, practicable and helpful in managing the social diversity of the country.