September 27, 2016 Sujeev Shakya

Of Two Minds

The social media are awash with posts since the government recently expressed its thoughts on making English and Hindi, along with Nepali, the country’s official languages. The imposition of Hindi as an official language in the southern Indian states by the political forces dominated by the Hindi speaking northern belt was a matter of major political controversy in the 1950s and 1960s. Therefore, it is only natural that there will be controversy when a language that has been contested in the country of its origin itself is imposed on another one. However, the issue is not something to get too nationalistic about, but to see what will work for Nepal in the next 20 to 30 years.

Language And Business

In an EMBA class I was teaching, a student working with one of the government agencies confronted me on the need of English as an official language. He opined that not knowing English well, in its written or spoken form, did not hamper his work and he even challenged me to explain why I was teaching this internationally recognised course in English. My response was simple: his thoughts were limited to the few documents that he had to go through each day, but the approval of billions of dollars of investment in Nepal requires documents prepared by international lawyers in English. People tend to state that China and Japan have been able to grow without using much English, but what people forget is that once you are an economy of that size, you can decide what language you want to use. There is a direct co-relation between the use of the global language and economic growth. Foreign investors or business people are not as interested in countries that refrain from using English. North Korea is a big example and the way Iran is trying to reform clearly indicates the global trend.

I was very surprised that the Non Resident Nepali Association proceedings around the world are conducted in Nepali. While many defend this trend as an expression of nationalism, it can also be seen as an attempt to create a more closed society and as disinterest in competing in the global world. With technology making communicating in Nepali easier, many Nepalis are trying to avoid the hassle of learning to communicate in English. This is creating two sets of people in society: those who are getting their education in English and those who are getting their education in Nepali. This tendency has forced many people who have had English language education from schools like St Xavier’s, St Mary’s and Budhanilkantha to leave Nepal. Very few have stayed back and tried to fight a system that is dominated by people who do not want to learn to communicate in the global language. Therefore, we are seeing players of international financial services wanting to either leave or avoid the Nepali corporate sector. In the development sector, the language issue has become a business generating tool for scores of people working as translators, whose translation of documents into Nepali is only understood by a few and which usually finds its way to the recycle bin soon.

Comparative Advantage

From Kigali to Phnom Penh, we see many Nepalis building international careers. These are people who speak a global language, have learnt to appreciate the world’s diversity and the technology that has made it a smaller place. They do not want to come back to Nepal as they do not understand the official language of communication, even though they do appreciate the emerging Nepali art, literature, culture and music. Without these people finding Nepal a place of interest to work in, we will have garland maniacs donning the stages spewing words that mean little and a narcissist culture of going back and looking at one’s own performance on television in the evening. If Nepalis world over have done well, it is because since the 1990s, English has become accessible to many students in private schools, and students who graduated from schools in remote parts of Nepal have been able to get admission in good colleges and universities around the world, thereby making jobs chase them instead of them chasing jobs. The current leadership in Nepal, be it in business, government, politics or civil society, cannot communicate well with this emerging generation of Nepalis as their languages do not match.

Bilingual Culture

Many countries that have been making phenomenal strides in economic growth are those that have pursued a bilingual culture. If you did not have people like Manjushree Thapa, then the world probably would not have got to read the writings of Indra Bahadur Rai. If you did not have folks like Abhi Subedi, you could not get the vernacular discourse coming in crisp English or global discourses expressed in simple Nepali. People like Hari Sharma and Pratyoush Onta and institutions like Social Science Baha and Martin Chautari have played a big role in closing the linguistic gaps. All of them have inspired me to start a column in Nepali in the Kantipur daily.

The core of Nepali language is not engineering, business or management. For these, we need to make English work. At the same time, we need to ensure the oral traditions of multiple languages, the repository of experiences and lives reflected in the Nepali language should not be lost. Rather they should be brought out to the world. Globalisation is a paradigm of the new interconnected world where it is about adopting and adapting to change.

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