Blog on democracy: 3-language policy for Nepal

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Sat Nov 4 16:40:43 UTC 2006

Monday, August 14, 2006, Language Policy

Forwarded from:

All bills must be posted online in three languages - Nepali, Hindi and
English - for at least one week before they may be voted upon....... All
formal political deliberations at all levels of government in the long run
and at the state and federal levels in the short run are to be posted
online in as real time as possible in the language that was used at the
venue. Efforts are to be made to make the same available in Nepali, Hindi
and English. The education system shall follow a tri-lingual policy up to
Class 10, beyond which it is for each individual institution to decide on
their own as to the language of instruction. The first language is to be
the student's first language, the second language is to be Nepali. For
those for whom Nepali might be their first language, the student may
choose any language spoken in Nepal. The third language is to be English,
the contemporary global language of science and commerce. This policy
applies to schools in both the private and the public sectors. The
language of instruction for all other subjects to Class 10 will be a
decision to be made by the individual school board for the public schools
and by the owners of the private schools: it is to one of the three -
Nepali, Hindi, and English - or a combination.

It is for the state parliaments to decide on the use of a second, local
language as the language of government at the local levels.

(Source: Proposed Constitution)

Handling linguistic diversity is the key social diversity challenge at the
policy level.

Federalism: Competing Maps

There are some basic questions that have to be answered. How many
languages are there in Nepal, dead and alive? How many dead languages can
be rescued? How many alive languages are nearing extinction and need
special attention? How many of the alive languages exist only in spoken
form? They have no script, no literature. How many exist in oral as well
as written forms? How many of those that exist in written forms also have
their own unique scripts? Are those scripts well preserved or not?

How many have their own scripts but also use Devanagari, the script used
by both Nepali and English? How many have their own scripts and do not use
Devanagari right now but might want to and need help? How many of the
languages have a sizeable body of literature? How many of the languages
have ever handled at least secondary school material? Namely science,
maths, social studies stuff.

It is clear not all languages are at the same developmental stage.
Linguistic diversity, especially when we talk of the small population
groups, are like ecology in the Amazon forest. You are looking at delicate
stuff. Small group languages have to be preserved like they were rare
species of plants and animals. My point being language policy can not be
left entirely to the one person one vote mechanism. Say if there is one
village of 2,000 people somewhere in Nepal that speaks one language. You
can not expect their local tax base to sustain that language all the way.
They should qualify for some sort of federal help.

The concept of federalism is very related. The map that competes with mine
is that of the Maoists. And that map is my second choice so far. I can
settle for their version. But my disagreement is that you do not look at
cultural and religious diversity in geographical terms but rather in terms
of social institutions. There is the individual. Then there is the family.
There is the school.  There is the workplace. There is the state at
various levels, local to federal. Those are the primary social
institutions you are talking about.

The individual and the family are not state territory. Each person and
family decide on their own on the language(s) they will use within their
private space and private communication. And there will be a small but
growing group of two language families down the line. People will mix.
That is natural, that is healthy. The workplace will be largely in the
private sector. There it is the market that decides what language(s) get
used. But then there is the public sector, the territory of government
jobs. And that is state policy territory. Two institutions that need
urgent attention are the schools and the state organs. Again, primary,
secondary and higher educations have their own unique challenges.

My proposal is to have a standard education paradigm across the country.
In the private schools in the country that are all as a rule English
medium, all subjects get taught in English from the very first grade, and
Nepali is taught as a second language. That is the ground reality right
now. In the public schools all subjects get taught in Nepali from the very
first grade, and English is taught as a second language. My proposal
bridges the gap between the two, and brings in a third element, the
concept of a third language, the child's first language. This is where the
Maoist map can come handy. For 90% of the students, this will be neat and
tidy. But especially in the urban areas like Kathmandu, you are looking at
schools that are diverse. You might have students speaking six different
languages in one class, maybe more. What to do?

I insist on the three language policy for the private and public schools
because that will be a sure way to get private and public resources given
to the development of the languages in Nepal. Developing languages should
not be the small responsibility of some ivory tower academy. It should
happen in all schools in a very alive way. Say there are 20 schools in a
part of Kathmandu with diverse students populations. Perhaps they could
pool resources. And so one school could focus on teaching Maithili to
students from the 20 schools, another could teach the Rai language.
Creative options have to be looked into.

At the primary level you are looking at reading, writing and arithmetic.
Maybe we should make two scripts standard for education and government
work. Devanagari for all languages in Nepal. And the English language's
Roman script. And use the Roman script for numbers in the maths. You still
preserve the non-Devanagari scripts, but you don't use them in education
or in government. This uniformity might encourage people to learn each
other's languages. Otherwise you are looking at a nightmare situation in
education and the government machinery.

So a child goes to school and starts out learning two scripts, three
languages and arithmetic. That happens in grades 1-3. Then 4-5, you
introduce some more science and maths and social science. The private
schools will probably use English. The public schools will have a choice:
Nepali, Hindi, English. Then 6-12, a few more subjects. All along three
languages are learned. I can imagine a lot of Nepali speakers taking Hindi
as their second language. There has to be an emphasis on science and maths
all along. Maybe science and maths, those two subjects should be in
English for everybody.  Otherwise you are creating two Nepals.

The idea behind language policy in the schools is to best prepare the
students for the economy, for their careers, for their place in the world
economy. Ethnic pride is an important but a smaller factor. Upto grade 12
is school. Beyond that there is no state policy as to the language of
instruction. Each college and university decides on its own.  English is
dominant today. A few decades down the line you could be looking at Hindi
and Chinese. You never know. And those decisions get taken by the market.
Public policy has and should have only so much impact on the market.

As for the state machinery, I think the federal and state parliaments
should allow three languages. There should be immediate translation into
all three languages of all the deliberations. Then at the district level,
local languages come into play. You should be able to use Newari in
Kathmandu. And Maithili in Janakpur. Those are no brainers. In a village
near Janakpur where every single person speaks Maithili, it would make no
sense to do government work in any other language.

Pahadis need to stop getting defensive about Hindi. Before Mahendra came
along, Hindi had its place in Nepal. Your hostiltiy to Hindi is to do with
the Panchayati propaganda you have been subjected to. I am not saying
Hindi should be the link language in the Terai. I am reporting that it is.
The only question is if that ground reality will be given political
recognition or not. English gets recognition as the language of global
commerce and science.  Nepali is the link language in the hills, Hindi in
the link language in the Terai. When a Maithili speaker from Janakpur
talks to a Bhojpuri speaker in Nawalparasi, they do so in Hindi.

Hindi is also about Nepali empowerment at the global level. It is very
much a Nepali agenda to have Hindi as the sixth UN language. Both Pahadis
and Madhesis have to get behind that idea. My ideas are fluid. I have
concrete proposals, sure, but I am open to alternate proposals. The
important thing is that there be an open, participatory, wide discussion.
People have to feel they are being listened to.

The first phase is wide discussion. During the second phase we can get
around to specific policy alternatives. There will be competing proposals.
We will pick one.


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