Friday, 18 November 2011

Minding our languages

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.