Even as the dust refuses to settle after Parliament’s highly polarised debate on teaching Bhutan history in Dzongkha, there is an unsettling practice in some of our schools that needs our attention.

A number of schools in the country, both in urban and rural areas, strictly enforce English as the campus lingua franca. The language policy requires all students to speak only in English. Speaking in any other language, including Dzongkha, brings punishment such as making prostrations or wearing around the neck, down the chest, a piece of cardboard with a humiliating message. In the recent past, a remote school adorned its students with ‘I’m a fool’ card for speaking their tongues. A high school in Punakha makes the students who fail to follow this regulation prostrate 50 times before the statue of Jetsun Jampelyang. A teacher friend of mine says forcing children to speak English makes smaller children dumb on the campus. Understandably so.

This language policy is enforced in a country that speaks some 20 languages and is fighting an uphill battle to popularise its national language. It flies in the face of several national policies and objectives, including the promotion of the national language, preservation of linguistic diversity, preservation and promotion of cultural heritage, promotion of national integration, and preservation of linguistic rights. But I will not dwell on all of these points.

Reinforcing stepmotherly treatment of Dzongkha

In a country where most people learn and speak English as the second, third, or fourth language, this practice is a classic anomaly. It reflects a mindset that runs contrary to the objective of Dzongkha promotion. It excludes Dzongkha from a fertile learning environment.

In spite of all the good work the government has done so far, Dzongkha is struggling against the onslaught of English. Dzongkha is one of the media of instruction in our education system but it gets only one period in an eight-period daily teaching-learning routine. Today, Dzongkha is considered barely good enough for teaching the language itself, not even good enough for teaching Bhutan history which is rooted in the Bhutanese languages.

Unfortunately, this language policy is part of Bhutan’s larger, unreasonably misplaced penchant for English at the cost of Dzongkha and other languages. Despite His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo’s repeated command requiring all public servants to use Dzongkha in all their correspondence and meetings, only a few public institutions use Dzongkha officially. A little chilip amid a hundred Bhutanese becomes a perfect excuse to speak in English, call it love of English or deficiency in Dzongkha.

Among the Bhutanese, being able to read, write, and speak in English is seen as a sign of higher education and sophistication. This is why, it has become the lingua franca among Bhutan’s educated, polyglot urban population. This is why, an increasing number of educated Bhutanese speak English at home. This is why, otherwise Dzongkha-speaking or Tshangla-speaking people like to practise English when they are drunk. This is why, the educated Bhutanese, including some Dzongkha teachers and experts, express their anger or frustration in English. There is some naivety surrounding all of these.

In short, Dzongkha is struggling to gain prominence and importance against all of these mindsets, attitudes, preferences, habits.

Despite such odds stacked against Dzongkha, the knowledge of Dzongkha will remain paramount. The requirement to conduct parliamentary deliberations in Dzongkha is a case in point. It is against this broad policy backdrop that Dzongkha must be seen.

All tongues must find expression

I am not saying that Dzongkha is or should be the lingua franca in all the Bhutanese schools. The Bhutanese schools typically reverberate with several languages such as Tshangla (mother tongue of 33.72% of the population according to 2015 GNH Survey Report), Lhotshamkha, Khengkha, Chocha Ngacha, and Bumthangkha. And speaking these languages is not foolish. If our languages are our socio-cultural anchor, our schools could promote themselves as linguistic melting pots instead of trying to anglicise themselves. This could help sustain our linguistic diversity and ensure the survival of some dying languages. In other words, we do not need language policing.

The Constitution of Bhutan enshrines language as part of Bhutan’s cultural heritage. Linguist George van Driem, a towering scholar closely associated with Bhutan, says that ‘our mother tongue is our mind’s conceptual homeland’. All languages are important for their native speakers for their cultural expression and identity. No language must be evicted from any institute of learning.

Linguistic diversity and national integration 

I went to school speaking only my mother tongue, Chocha Ngacha. Over the years, besides Dzongkha and English, I picked up Tshangla and a smattering of Lhotshamkha and Chalikha (the language spoken by only one village in Mongar) from the campus of a few schools that did not force me to speak only English.

Speaking other languages has enabled me to connect with my fellow Bhutanese and their cultures at different levels. English connects us with the world. Our own languages connect us with ourselves. In other words, it is called national integration.

English will serve us well. Our own languages will serve us better.

Contributed by

Needrup Zangpo 

A consultant and the executive director of Journalists’ Association of Bhutan. He can be reached at needrup@gmail.com