Thursday, 24 June 2010

Double Roles of English in Nepal

A famous British linguist David Crystal estimates that more than two billion people speak English presently. He further claims that this statistics is increasing every year because people have to learn English in order to keep them updated with the world news on politics, education, scientific innovations and economy. In general, we learn English not because it is the world’s largest language but it possesses a huge social and economic resource through which we define our social identity in the present globalized world. We, especially the people from the developing economies (Third World), are learning English not because it is the language of British, America, Australian and other developed countries, but by assuming that English develops our life style, provides job and enriches knowledge. In this regard, another British linguist and researcher, David Graddol in his book The Future of English claims that the nineteenth century British colonialism and the twentieth century American capitalism and culture are the two fundamental reasons for such a wide spread of English as a world language. In the same line, Braj Kachru describes English as a gateway to economic prosperity. Due to such a perceived materialistic charisma of English, the people from the developing economies assume that learning English is inevitable for individual and social empowerment. We consider English as a ‘passport’ to cross the boarder.

Although there are a number of benefits of English as mentioned above, we should not ignore the fact that its spread has also created some serious socio-economic and political issues not only in the developing economies but also in the developed countries like in America and the entire Europe. One of the major social-economic issues, to give an example of Nepal, is: the English language has created a big gap between haves and have-nots. If we flash back the history of the English language in Nepal, we could see it as the language of elites and affluent families. The Ranas’ protectionism of English as the language of rulers and the Panchayat’s covert willingness to make it the language of elites had clearly divided the whole Nepalese society into two groups. This clearly indicates that the English-literates dominate over the English-illiterates as the former possess the socio-economic and political power created by the English language. Moreover, after the restoration of democracy, English became the language of the expensive private schools which are affordable only by the affluent families. This clearly indicates that the English language does not seem to become the language of maintaining social equality in Nepal rather it has become only ‘power’ for the elites to dominate the whole society.

But against such a situation, people from different language communities are becoming aware of their vanishing language identity and on the other hand, different universal declarations (e.g. Declaration of Human Rights) have also clearly stated language as a human right. Following such provisions, Nepal has already introduced Education for All (EFA) programme in which mother tongue education in a major focus.

Moreover, human right activists and indigenous community leaders claim that English language teaching (ELT), especially in early schooling, marginalises the ethno-indigenous cultures and language, and creates social inequality among rich and poor. In this regard, a famous applied linguist, Robert Phillipson passionately contends that maintaining the legacy of the former colonial history of English speaking countries and presently being the language of globalisation, English has become a major threat for local languages. This is happening in Nepal too. In addition to the long domination of the Nepali language in all domains, now, English has been introduced from Grade One in schools without any intensive research. It has been introduced because all, especially policy makers (who are from elite groups), assume that English is important at this modern age. However, they have never looked at the problems faced by children while learning English from Grade One. They are not serious about the vanishing local language and culture. Although there is the provision of mother tongue education, due to the socio-economic power ascribed to English (and Nepali), the innocent children and parents are motivated to learn English by forgetting their own ethnolinguistic identity. This implies that the taken-for-granted assumption towards English will lead to serious economic and political disadvantages in the future.

This is a bizarre fact that developed/industrialised countries are focusing on producing competent multilingual manpower. They have shifted their mind from monolingual-English-speaker to multilingual ones. They have seen that a multilingual young man is more competent than one who is a monolingual English speaker. However, what we are assuming and doing in Nepal is that as far as possible we are trying to make our students monolingual speakers of English through its overemphasis in education. This will of course be a serious disadvantage for the forthcoming generations. This discussion clearly indicates that there is an urgent need of an academic meaningful discussion on the policy of English language teaching in Nepal and in other developing economies.

Another issue of teaching English in Nepal is whether or not we are able to link the English language with students’ real world view. Closely associated with this issue are the questions: Are we following only the methods that are developed in the West or creating our own methods which fit in our context? Are we promoting a sustainable learning through critical thinking or just making students a parrot to drill the grammar of English? Do our textbooks address learners’ identities, cultures and values or only borrows ‘foreign’ ones? Are we teaching English in isolation or by linking it with local and global issues? I am not answering these questions here because they do not have absolute answers. However, these questions lead us to a process which helps us to lay a strong foundation to set up the positive role of English in the diverse context of Nepal.

While talking about the identity, there come different varieties of English. Since the number of native speakers of English is already exceeded by the number of non-native speakers, there is no point in prescribing only one or two so-called standard variety of English. With the global spread of English not only the population of English speakers is increasing but also the varieties of English are increasing. In this context, we should contemplate on some issues like whether we have a Nepalese English variety? How feasible is it to use as a medium of instruction in schools? At this moment, I can only make a hypothesis that one day we will have a separate variety of English, the Nepalese English. This may emerge with the publications of textbooks and materials in Nepal by local authors and writers instead of importing the books from foreign countries.

In this regard Numa Markee, Professor of University of Illinois, argues that Nepalese applied linguists and English teachers should take a leading role in framing the discussion of language issues. In particular, “what (quasi) official role (if any) should English play in relation to indigenous Nepalese languages, and in particular sectors of the economy, education, science, business, and tourism?”

The above discussion suggests that there is an urgent need of a comprehensive survey of language issues in Nepal which closely looks at the role of English in education and social life of people. English teachers should not only be a teacher, they have a social responsibility to address the beliefs and values of learners while teaching English. We should move beyond the English-Only assumption to English-With-Other-Languages. As professor Makee has put: What steps should Nepal take to maintain its linguistic and cultural heritage from the potential “killer” characteristics of English? has to be borne in our mind. Otherwise, English will only become the symbol of ‘hegemony’ as the nineteenth century philosopher Antonio Gramsci says.

(Mr Phyak researches and writes on the issue of English in multilingual contexts, and ethnolinguistic and cultural identity. He can be reached at