[lg policy] Nepal: Minding our languages

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Wed Nov 16 15:29:16 UTC 2011

Minding our languages

Prem Phyak

NOV 14 -
Language is very sensitive which may create social disintegration if
it is not used and planned properly. We all know that Parmanand Jha,
the first vice-president of the Federal Republic of Nepal, took the
oath of office in Hindi on July 23, 2008. The whole country came to a
halt for more than a week due to protests against his action. Although
the Supreme Court declared his oath in Hindi to be unconstitutional
and ordered him to retake the oath in Nepali, he refused to do so. To
resolve this issue, the Legislative Parliament passed the Seventh
Amendment to the Interim Constitution on Jan 28, 2010. The amendment
allows the president, vice-president, prime minister and other
ministers to take the oath of office in their first language. On Feb
7, 2010, Vice-President Jha took a fresh oath in both Nepali and
Maithili, his first language.

Such issues emerge due to lack of a clear language policy. It is
obvious that a society functions cohesively in a country where an
inclusive multilingual policy is adopted. But conflicts and social
disintegration of a different nature take place in a country like
Nepal where the language policy is not inclusive. In a democratically
just society, all linguistic communities expect their linguistic
identity to be addressed and protected. In order to discuss how
language issues can be settled for social cohesion, the Ninth Language
and Development International Conference was organised in Colombo, Sri
Lanka with the theme “Language and Social Cohesion” on Oct 17-19,
2011. As one of the paper presenters, I collected some major inputs
that could be instrumental for language planning to build a cohesive
Nepali society.

The grand opening ceremony was conducted in three languages — Sinhala,
Tamil and English — as per the government’s policy. As it was an
international conference, all the government officials including Sri
Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa addressed the gathering in English.
The president said that one of the reasons for the previous conflict
in Sri Lanka was its discriminatory language policy (only Sinhala was
recognised as the official language). There were two booths in the
conference hall from where all the speeches were translated into
Sinhala and Tamil that could be heard over a wireless headphone.

Sri Lanka’s trilingual policy is clearly seen in the marketplaces, bus
stations and the city. All the signboards and public notices are in
three languages. Both Sinhala and Tamil are taught in the schools and
universities. I learned at various informal discussions that
Tamil-speaking children were doing well after the introduction of
Tamil in school. It is also very interesting to learn that the Sri
Lankan job market prefers trilingual candidates over monolingual ones.

Sri Lanka’s language policy provides some significant issues to
formulate an inclusive language policy in Nepal. First, it is clear
that Nepal has to prepare a comprehensive language policy. Second, the
country has to get rid of the “one language, one nation” attitude.
Such narrow nationalism defined only in terms of the Nepali language
undermines the indigenous identity of Nepal as a multilingual country.
As Tamils agitated against Sri Lanka’s discriminatory one-language
policy, different indigenous linguistic communities in Nepal have been
demanding their linguistic rights for about two and half centuries.

Although the country seemed to be unified with its one-language
policy, people from various linguistic communities have been
discriminated against. Due to lack of proficiency in the Nepali
language, people from indigenous communities could not access wider
socio-economic opportunities. Their children could not perform well in
school as only Nepali was used as the medium of instruction. This
clearly indicates that there is a need to formulate a feasible
language-in-education policy which creates a cohesive atmosphere among
the children’s home languages and the medium of instruction in school.

Another important implication is that the country has to be cautious
while developing language planning policies in its federal structure.
As in Sri Lanka, the federal states can choose at least one local
language (based on the number of speakers) to be used along with
Nepali as another official and link language. In the case of other
minority languages, the federal states can devise a policy to
introduce them in education and other domains. Considering English as
an important international language, its role has to be clearly
defined. Although it is not easy to devise a multilingual language
policy, it is not impossible if there is strong political will. For
this, the country has to ensure the participation of linguistic groups
in the process of language policy making. The top-down approach of
language planning (planning based on the ideas of only the elite) may
not really address linguistic complexities.

We not only have more than 140 languages but also a treasure trove of
knowledge constructed through them. All the languages have to be
preserved. For this, the country has to make a long-term plan. One of
the important lessons we can learn from Sri Lanka in this regard is
the establishment of a separate ministry for the development of
national languages. Sri Lanka has the Ministry of National Languages
and Social Integration which is fully responsible for the promotion of
national languages and fostering social cohesion. There is an urgent
need for such a ministry in Nepal. By promoting the national
languages, the country will be preserving a vast store of knowledge in
literature, culture, ecology, history, education, society, conflict
resolution, religion and so on.

The author researches on issues of language planning in multilingual
contexts and language-identity connection. His recent article on
language-in-education planning in Nepal has been published in Current
Issues in Language Planning, Routledge, London


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