Nepal’s Multilingual Heritage
Prem Prasad Paudel
As a multilingual country, Nepal will have many people debating their language-based identity as the country’s centralised administrative system of government gets fully transformed into a federal political structure.
Historically, the linguistic-identity discourses were peripheral, limited only to elites within various ethnic groups. A majority of them were well-educated, and aligned with certain political party or its professional wing. They engaged in English-oriented jobs and advocated the rights of language minority groups. Some of them had been criticised as utilising this discourse as a means for hunting ‘a bigger chequebook’.
Since the establishment of multiparty democracy, at the legislative superstructure, constitutional provisions have clearly articulated the need for promotion of the languages of the nation. The Constitution of Nepal, 2015, sees the role of language in maintaining national unity as it states the need “to promote national unity, while developing mutually cooperative relations between the federal units by maintaining mutual cohesion, harmony and solidarity between various castes, tribes, religions, languages, cultures and communities.”
During the period of multiparty parliamentary democracy, official documents began to be translated into different languages, the media, such as the Gorkhapatra Daily, allocated space for local languages, schools offered options for instruction in the mother tongues and primary schools offered textbooks in local languages. But, on a closer look, these practical attempts for the promotion and protection of the wonderfully situated linguistic diversity of Nepal were far from enough.
Two streams of thoughts regarding the multilingual identity of the state had been dominant. The first was the traditional concept, of the multiplicity of languages, which was taken as causing the disintegration of people of various linguistic identities. It was perceived to have the potential to disrupt the conformist thinking. The second was an alternative perception of linguistic identity that said the promotion of multiple languages, to exist concurrently in a social structure, was beneficial, because such a situation tended to help human beings reduce conflict. During the Panchayet system, the monoglossic policy was supposed to be promoting national integration although some minority voices for language rights were far from receiving any response.
The second stream of thought seemed better suited to the evolving globalisation and increased migration, which have led to an unimagined mixture of the communities from across the globe. The urban life, almost everywhere in the world, has been witnessing an unprecedented global mix, resulting in a number of minority language groups, in need of alternative linguistic interventions in schools and the marketplace. At the same time, due to the immense pressure of ‘English wave’ through technology and trade communications, the societies have not been able to resist it even if they are not satisfied with what is happening around them.
Various researches in language acquisition have concluded that the knowledge of multiple languages enhances the individual’s capacity to understand the ‘other’ and reduces the potential conflicts that might result from low or non-existent interpretation of the “other’s self”. It is crucial that multilingualism is to be valued and promoted in the best possible way so that it ensures equity and multiplies an individual’s capacity to ‘feel’ the ‘other’ part of the human value. As languages bear human knowledge situated within the self as an individual and within the community of the speakers as shared group values, extinction of a language means loss of human knowledge.
Since a long time ago, in Nepal, opportunities have been missed to optimally harness the multiple languages of different ethnic groups as resources. The ideological confrontation and dilemma within the political, economic, and social formations have given rise to issues of standardisation and adequacy of the languages of the minority and ethnic groups. Till now, classroom instruction in the mother tongue, to many people, is ‘inferior education’, even to those who advocate the promotion of ‘mother-tongue based multilingual education’ campaign based on the provisions enshrined in the international declarations and national constitution.
Minority languages had to be left aside due to emergent globalisation, the effect of which was seen in the shifting pedagogies and cultivation of English to meet the requirements of globalisation. Many other languages in Nepal have been continuously experiencing constrained lives due to a movement of English in the education, business, technology and intra-national communication. Instead of reacting to the unprecedented power of English, as it was understood, it would be wise to empower and enrich other languages with borrowing and contextualisation through English. Accepting the diversity and power identity also means a lot for promoting unity. Acknowledging the minority languages even if some of them are beyond official uses also will promote additive bilingualism/multilingualism leading to the reduction of perceived inequalities in the super and sub-social structure in Nepalese communities.
In the ideologically complex social structure, it is not too late to harness the principle of ‘unity in diversity’ to promote multilingual heritage of Nepal through not reacting to one or the other language such as Nepali or English, but embracing the power of them as a resource for extenuating the linguistic barriers. The academia and the political/ideological forces need to be realistic to understand our grounding and adopt the most possible and practicable path ahead to promote linguistic identity, respecting diversity and global forces emerging not from beyond, but from within our own socio-political structure.
(The author is a lecturer at Tribhuvan University, Mahendra Ratna Campus, currently pursuing PhD at Education University of Hong Kong)