Language is not only a medium of communication – in that you don’t learn a language just to be able to communicate with someone. Language is a bearer of culture and cultural values, it is a conveyor of feelings and belief systems. And language provides the key to unlock the social world around us. Simply put, if you don’t speak the language or speak well, you cannot fully appreciate the intrinsic aspects of society. Your understanding remains shallow at best – and culturally alienated at worst.

Above all, to draw from the famous Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, language shapes our thoughts. And thoughts eventually dictate our actions. What this means is that the way a native English speaker thinks is different from someone who speaks Italian as mother tongue, who in turn will think differently than the ones who grow up with Dzongkha. In other words, the mind-sets of different native speakers differ – as per this theory. 

Therefore, it is quite worrisome that Bhutanese children – our children are deprived of a good grounding in Dzongkha because of the “shortage” of trained Dzongkha teachers in primary schools (Refer Kuensel article, December 25, 2018). This is perhaps the tragedy facing our national language – whereby an issue such this doesn’t raise any sense of alarm or uneasiness. I am a native Sharchopkha speaker and I learnt to speak Dzongkha in school. The role of schools in language education, therefore, cannot be overstated. 

In my current position as a communication scholar, one of the areas that I specialise in is sociolinguistics – a branch of communication that looks at how language does too, and shapes, a society. My concern, therefore, grows out of a deeper understanding of the role that a national language plays in the process of nation-building and the sense of nationhood. 

Our goal of national unity and sovereignty will be severely compromised if the national language is accorded the second-language status – or if Bhutanese people do not speak well enough or take pride – to appreciate the richness of our culture, the importance of the social traditions or the taste for age-old folktales, stories and timeless wisdom. Both nation-building and sovereignty are a work in progress or a dynamic process – or both.

So, what can we do? What are the possible solutions? The following are what comes to my mind. Other social thinkers and commentators may have more or are free to add or diverge from mine.

First, this is not an issue to be left to the Education Ministry or the Dzongkha Development Commission – although these agencies are at the forefront and can do more than what they are doing now. To start with, we need to move beyond the problems, mediocrities or blame-game and get down to some serious business. The issue warrants nothing less than a Parliamentary deliberation and perhaps an Act to protect and promote the national language – if there isn’t one already. The Act should, above all, require the Government to pour resources to this area – and not limit to mere tokenism such as requiring Dzongkha on vehicle number-plates or shop signboards. Rather, workable plans, programs and strategies to strengthen it should be formulated whereby we get to a point where Dzongkha is used widely with pride and pleasure. Only then we will be moving beyond the current state of affairs.

Second, the promotion of the national language could expand to a certification system whereby anyone with the required skills and knowledge could become a certified Dzongkha language teacher. Everyone knows about the TESOL and IELTS certifications. The Dzongkha Development Commission could develop basic, intermediate and advanced Dzongkha Language Teacher’s Certification (DLTC) courses, which could be delivered by public and private institutions. Anyone thereafter who is certified can teach Dzongkha in schools or anywhere in the world. Similarly, a basic DLTC certification could be a requirement for certain jobs requiring a public interface. 

Such a system could open an industry of its own, which will then go a long way into popularising the language. Private language centres will mushroom and some people might even venture into foreign soils to teach Dzongkha to the Bhutanese diaspora. English, which is one of the most difficult languages with complex syntax, grammar and even pronunciation has become the most popular language in the world – thanks mainly to such aggressive campaigns. It didn’t happen just like that – or out of the blues.

Third, systematic research needs to be done in earnest to further develop different pedagogical approaches to teaching Dzongkha. The existing rote-memorization-and-reprimand method may work within the monastic walls but not in a liberal education system. Besides, different native speakers have different ways to comprehend a new language and Dzongkha-teaching should factor these cognitive and linguistic realities.

Fourth, the two agencies that have contributed immensely to popularising Dzongkha (besides the school education system) are the Bhutanese film industry and the Bhutanese Broadcasting Service. Could we inject more resources and recognition to these two institutions? Could we take a leaf out of the Korean wave, where over US$ 200 million is injected annually into the K-pop industry by their government? Why don’t we push what works instead of lamenting what is not working?

Lastly, Dzongkha should be seen as more than a subject. It should be viewed as an education in itself – by integrating and expanding to other skills and aspects of society such as art, music, history, culture, folktales and values education. Some of these are imparted as extra-curricular already, which is not enough. It is high time we develop further and move them into the mainstream.

In conclusion, let me also point out that in the past any public discourse on the promotion of Dzongkha has been countered with the argument to do it at the expense of English – our current medium of instruction in schools. To me, these arguments are lame excuses or non-starters. The Dzongkha-English debate is not an either-or case. I know many friends and colleagues who are perfect in both. Some are perfect in three or even four languages (Dzongkha, English, Sharchopkha and Bumtap). Swiss people are, for example, fluent in all three official languages – German, French and Italian – and some even in English. Some of the best Dzongkha speakers of my generation are from Mongar, Lhuentse, Bumthang or Trongsa. English is the language that we need to engage with the World – and engagement with the world, at the political level as well as through participation in a globalised economy and travels, is necessary to enhance and sustain our very sovereignty. 

The call for protection and promotion of Dzongkha, therefore, should not be equated to cosmetic jingoism or ultra-nationalism but as a genuine concern to retain an important element of national unity, identity and stability. For, Dzongkha is more than a language. It is our national language – one of the binding forces that will ultimately define our destiny as a nation.


Contributed by Dorji Wangchuk

PhD Fellow and Researcher

University of Macau