Replace Dzongkha by English

Published on Aug 29 2010 // News Analysis
By I. P. Adhikari

Recent political change in Bhutan has given opportunity for public debates on several issues pertaining to Bhutanese nationality, including its official language Dzongkha, which otherwise would have been impossible. Talking relevance of any Bhutanese symbols under absolute monarchy was certain to land people into jails. Discussing their usage today is the healthy democratic culture that Bhutan is trying to adopt.

Propagation of Dzongkha took place in a closed society under absolute monarchy. Adoption of Dzongkha as the national and official language of the country had not been a decision of consensus by the multilingual Bhutanese society. A section of Bhutanese intellectuals had raised questions on its relevance as the unifying language since its adoption but the voice went weaker over time. The only answer against such resistance to Dzongkha mission was that Bhutan must use a single language owing to its geographical and population size. Additionally, kings and their coterie in many occasions have said that Bhutan cannot resist diversity – either in ethnicity or in languages.

It is not the size of a country that matters while selecting national language but the diversity. Bhutanese population is composed of various linguistic groups dominated by three major ethnic groups – Ngalops, Sarchops and Nepalis, distinguished basically by their linguistic differences. No linguistic survey has yet been conducted but writers say over two dozen languages are being spoken in Bhutan.

Using a single unifying language is not the problem for Bhutan. The issue is the methods to select. What were the criteria for selecting Dzongkha as national as well as official language some four decades ago? Until that day, most official correspondences were in Nepali. It was the realization by Bhutanese rulers for a country to have a national language after Bhutan joined the United Nations. Generally, selection of the national language or official language is based on the proportion of population. This is universal practice that a language spoken by majority of the citizens is granted the honour of national language and/or official language. Dzongkha had not been a language of the mass by the time it was given the current status. It was and is Tshangla lo, the language from the east, that dominates the Bhutanese society. Absence of script means, Tshangla lo cannot work as the official language. Of late, some Sarchops are mulling for its Romanization.

Debates on Dzongkha as the official and national language of Bhutan have sparked furious response that it was intended for promotion of Nepali. Besides Dzongkha, the only language spoken in Bhutan having written form is Nepali, though expanding Indian population and penetration of Bollywood of late has made Hindi increasingly popular.

Universally practiced, a country can have more than one national language. As such, Nepali, Dzongkha and Tshangla lo can be the national languages of Bhutan. However, it is necessary for a linguistically diversified country to have a single common language for communication that fits for all linguistic groups.

According to an assessment of a former general secretary of Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industries (BCCI), it is the Nepali that most Bhutanese understand, if not spoken. Comparatively, Tshangla lo native speakers surpass but the Dzongkha speaking population. Even Nepali native speakers could be more than Dzongkha speakers. Mark Turin’s digital Himalaya project estimates native Dzongkha speakers to be around 130,000 (including those in Sikkim). To believe this figure, the native Tshangla lo and Nepali speakers are obviously more. But due to absence of linguistic and ethnic census in Bhutan, one cannot exactly claim the native population of certain linguistic or ethnic groups.

Today Dzongkha is presented as the symbol of national identity in Bhutan. National identity is not merely a reflection of a particular ethnic group in a country where several communities exist, rather an integrated form of languages and cultures. Bhutan projects to achieve harmony through gross national happiness and this remains impossible until national identity is presented in the culture and language of western districts.

Dzongkha is taught as a language in schools. Beyond that, learning Dzongkha almost comes to an end. Parents accept that most of their children are not interested in it, less in schools more in higher studies considering its lack of usage in higher studies or professions. The social conviction that person studying Dzongkha will have low social status compelled young people to opt English as their primary subject. To replace English by Dzongkha as medium of instruction in schools and university will be tedious, time consuming and financially unviable job. More exactly it is beyond Bhutan’s capacity. On the other hand, Bhutanese religious institutions do not impart knowledge in original Dzongkha, but in more Tibetan Choeki. In both, Dzongkha is a subject of learning under compulsion.

The difficulty, and obviously inability, of teaching subjects in Dzongkha is substantiated by the government’s decision last year when teaching of history was reversed to English again. The educationists and teachers have realized that history cannot be taught in Dzongkha. When teaching profession is not so attractive in Bhutan that has created teacher shortage, getting Dzongkha teachers is rare.

Dzongkha is gradually eroding from urban life, educated families. Urban residents prefer speaking English even in unofficial gatherings with inborn psyche to look more advanced, educated and smart. The elites, high level government officials and politicians prioritize sending their children abroad for schooling or choose private schools where English is given preference. Tactically, this has made Dzongkha a language of the rural folk or poor population in urban. Elites impose Dzongkha, they don’t use it.

One of the factors creating rural-urban division in Bhutan is the language. Rural folks, who come mostly from Dzongkha background with lesser knowledge in English, are treated not as skillful, capable or modernized. Students studying Dzongkha have only few reserved quota in government services since they cannot compete in general quota.

The hardliners of the Dzongkha movement have not given alternatives for non-Dzongkha speakers. The forceful indoctrination resulted in more hatred to Dzongkha than love for it. Constitutionally, a person is not entitled to get Bhutanese citizenship without knowing Dzongkha.

Since coining it as the lingua franca, Dzongkha received resistance from religious institutions. The delayed penetration of Dzongkha into Bhutanese society was due to the tussle between the monarchy and the religious institutions over this language. Lamas continued advocating for Tibetan Choeki, in which most Buddhist inscriptions have been translated.

Dzongkha is not the language in Bhutan that majority population understands. There aren’t any symptoms to be so hereafter too. The language is not only difficult to learn but also has many shortcomings to be used for daily life in the changed system. As the country’s political scenario changes, Dzongkha cannot meet the demands of political, technological, legal and constitutional vocabulary. Dzongkha cannot survive to its original form if vocabulary importation from Tibetan continues to meet these demands as had been in the case translating constitution. The technological advancement has made it more cumbersome for Dzongkha to use its original script jogyig. The Unicode compatible with Microsoft used today for typing is Ucan, which is not exactly the script for Dzongkha.

The government has made so much of efforts just to produce little outcomes. In over 40 years of uninterrupted efforts at the cost of state coffers, Dzongkha stands today where it receives more hatred and avoidance from citizens over English. Further efforts for promotion might not produce any substantial results than making it survive as a dialect.

Dzongkha devotees must have realized by this time that Dzongkha is not a convenient language Bhutanese can hold for a long, owing not only to linguistic diversity of the country but also due to non-uniformity in meaning and pronunciation of this language.

The participants during the recent national Dzongkha conference in Thimphu accepted that the national language cannot compete with English. They said, not only the general people, most specifically youngster, are more inclined to English but even the ministries use English for communication and official purposes. During the preceding conference Tandin Dorji, DDC chief program officer, made a proposal to let Bhutanese citizens be offered a bilingual choice when communicating with or within the government.

Dzongkha changes with village and efforts for standardization of the language produced no good results. It is worrisome for citizens to know that expected results are not in hands even when government allocates budget for its development and promotion. Dzongkha Development Commission (DDC) is the only institution receiving government assistance for linguistic development while other languages receive not a penny. This is a show of state hatred towards other languages, which was more genuinely observed during the first ever literary festival held in the country where only Hindi, English and few Dzongkha literatures were recited, exchanged earlier this year.

The government some years back had made it mandatory that all government documents are prepared in Dzongkha; all official letters are exchanged in Dzongkha. Today, this formality is met in official documentation where such documents have rare usage in daily administration. Still the cabinet transcribes its decision in English. Bureaucrats say, letters and notes exchanged in English get attention faster while those in Dzongkha are mostly discarded or else thrown into dustbin. The greatest weakness of Dzongkha is, and will be, the lack of written and spoken fluency among senior government officials and politicians — harder for those coming from other linguistic groups.

The effort to inculcate Dzongkha knowledge through force is likely to change, at least for toddlers. Dzongkha curriculum for classes between pre-primary through grade III have been proposed to be changed to end rote learning. Yet the process has been tedious and time consuming where a teacher is unlikely to handle the classroom teaching. Tedious teaching methods will further discourage young generation to learn Dzongkha.

The government efforts for setting Dzongkha in motion took a steady firm after finally convincing a section of the religious community that a national language is essential to represent the country, after which the religious community withdrew from the resistance movement. This resulted in publication of first Dzongkha grammar in late 1980s. Around these years, the government had produced a large quantity of Dzongkha-English books for distribution in non-Dzongkha speaking communities. This was received positively. Many learnt the national language during this particular period.

Publication of Dzongkha grammar and its popularization mission had no connection with the expulsion of Nepali-speaking people from the southern districts in early 1990s though both the events appear concurrently. However, some people radicalized it, intentionally. Nepali language books were burnt and teaching of the language was banned in southern schools. The furious groups of Nepali speakers in response sparked off tension further by burning gho and kira.

One of the many causes for rejection of Dzongkha by Nepali-speaking population was the unpopular act of the government. Though the northern Bhutan raise question on acceptance of Bhutanese identity in heart by Bhutanese-Nepalis, they failed to accept their mistakes to dishearten Nepalis by burning their language.

It was not only in the case of Dzongkha, the government failed to treat all languages spoken in the country equally. It enforced as a show that Bhutanese identity meant accepting all that comes from western Bhutan. Dzongkha would have received a good popularity in Bhutan, more precisely in south, had the government not acted so ruthless against existence of other languages in the country.

Culture goes extinct with language. Linguistic diversity makes a country culturally richer and one of the objectives of GNH is to keep country rich in cultural aspects. When Bhutan, as a nation, lobbies at the international forums for preservation of Drukpa culture and Dzongkha, it should also respect the sentiments of other non-Dzongkha speakers who wish that their language remains alive. Brokpas, Doyas, Lhapas, the original inhabitants of the country, have already lost their language either for Dzongkha, Khengkha or Tshangla lo.

The debate is not, and must not be, to ward off Dzongkha as the national language of the country. But the government should accept that Bhutanese symbolism not solely rests on Dzongkha, eliminating other languages. While people must be given choice for use of language, state must not act tough on enforcing Dzongkha for the non-Dzongkha speakers. Bhutan will have no loss in supporting the development of other major languages. It will further enhance harmony and unity.

The debates must be on the official language. Considering the ethnic and linguistic diversity, interest of the young people and open market that we are entering into, the wiser decision for the Bhutanese government would be to accept English as the official language and keep Dzongkha as national language.