Two children cannot communicate with their grandparents in the village because they cannot manage even rudimentary Dzongkha. They are raised in a western-educated family that speaks only English at home. A senior public official speaks sophisticated English but can hardly pull off a neat Dzongkha sentence without heavy reliance on English words or phrases. 

The above children and public official come from the same family in Thimphu. The official rise through the ranks even without basic Dzongkha, but for her children, Dzongkha is a constant battle in school. This family is a microcosm of Dzongkha’s declining appeal in urban Bhutan. 

Since the Dzongkha was adopted as Bhutan’s national language in the 1960s, it has been plagued by multiple challenges. One of them is our partiality for and fascination with English. Many Bhutanese tend to think that being able to use English well is the only mark of sophistication and education, which is a naïve perception. Therefore, English has become the lingua franca among the educated at the cost of promoting Dzongkha. 

Over the decades, the government has given particular importance to promoting and developing Dzongkha. His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo issued multiple kashos underlining the importance and promotion of Dzongkha. Yet, despite all the investment in public institutions, policies, development initiatives, and standardisation, Dzongkha remains a secondary language in Bhutan because of its lack of popular use. No amount of investment can save a language without users. 

It is time to reflect on what is not working with Dzongkha. Dzongkha is a rich and powerful language, so its lack of appeal cannot lie in its nature. Dzongkha does not appeal to us probably because we do not learn it enough. The discussion around how much we learn Dzongkha, however, cannot be confined to the school curriculum, as we are wont to do. How much we learn it at home, in offices, and everyday situations is equally important.

Another reason for Dzongkha’s lack of appeal to Bhutanese, particularly the young, is the rigidity with which Dzongkha experts – rather old-fashioned sticklers – disallow the evolution of the language. They jump on anyone using new or alternative words and phrases citing centuries-old usage. What they fail to understand is that a language needs to evolve to survive. 

The question then is, how do we make Dzongkha user-friendly even if it means simplifying traditional spellings and grammar? Which do we want to choose – evolution or death? 

Over the years, we have come to learn that institutional usage can give Dzongkha a major boost. Dzongkha use by the judiciary, Parliament, and the election commission has put many new words into current use. Imagine the impact if we can conduct all public affairs in Dzongkha. 

This leads us to think of a national Dzongkha proficiency test for public servants, a Bhutanese equivalent of IELTS. It can be the stick where the carrot has failed to work. It will force and, gradually encourage, Bhutanese to use our own language. 

However, underscoring the importance of Dzongkha does not mean that English is not important. It means Dzongkha is more important. It is unnecessary to discuss why. English has served us well, and we should continue to take advantage of its global reach and appeal. But not at the cost of our national language. Otherwise, the day will not be far when we realise the meaning of this popular Bhutanese maxim, ‘We would have lost our language before learning others’.