Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Language and Power

This is why I am in Nepal:

"There are over ninety-two local languages and dialects in Nepal and over a hundred different social groups based on caste, ethnicity, religion and language. The Panchayat regime's promotion of Nepali, even though it was not the mother tongue of a considerable portion of the Nepali citizenry, created an unfair advantage for those who spoke Nepali. Nepali speakers mostly comprised Bahuns and Chhettri, the top two tiers of the traditional Nepali caste system and the state-imposed Nepali language thus became a symbol of oppression, especially among ethnic and linguistic groups who did not speak Nepali. Although this system effectively instilled Nepali language as the primary means of public communication, even by 2001 only 28 per cent of the entire population spoke Nepali. Equally worrisome is the fact that a number of languages unique to particular ethnic groups in Nepal are in danger of dying today."

This is from Unleashing Nepal by Sujeev Shakya, a book that presents the history and current political climate of Nepal from the perspective of economics. The Panchayat regime of the Shah kings began in the 1950s, and during that time Nepali was imposed as the lingua franca of the nation as the king strove for a policy of one nation, one language, one religion. Many people I have talked to say that the establishment of a lingua franca was one of the few good things about the Panchayat regime, although it did and is doing a lot of damage to the ethnic and linguistic diversity of Nepal.

I am here to teach English, which is also very much associated with the elite in Nepali societies. Most private schools are English medium schools, and those who can afford decent private schooling are almost guaranteed English proficiency, but public school students often have difficulties. Where I am teaching most of the students speak Tamang or Newari, learn Nepali as a second language and English as a third, and so learning English can be a challenge. I am living with a Chhettri family. They speak Nepali natively, but I'm learning Tamang and Newari phrases so that I can interact with the students better.

I also want to interact with the Nepali linguistics community when I can, starting with the 31st Annual Conference of the Linguistics Society of Nepal which will be held this Friday and Saturday in Kirtipur. I just had some official Fulbright business cards printed and I'm about to go buy some pants that don't have toothpaste stains on them. I'll let you know how it goes!

1 comment:

  1. Have you read Isaiah Berlin's "The Sense of Reality" (1996)? I haven't...buuut, the book is an argument for cultural pluralism.