Although language planning and policy (LPP) has tremendous socio-cultural and practical implications, Nepal seems oblivious to it owing to a lack of national consensus and the absence of an understanding of a pragmatic criterion its implementation. As Carol M. Eastman of the University of Washington says, language planning takes place at many different levels in a nation, including at the government and societal levels, and must be developed on a scientific basis. The pragmatic criterion for its effective implementation, therefore, rejects the strategies inspired by mono-ethnicity and politicization of language.
Although the need of comprehensive LPP has been felt in Nepal since 1951, the endless debate on it has been contentious. What needs to be discussed now is which language(s) is chosen as the language of nation and as the official and provincial/state languages.
Along with federalism, the issue of selecting a common language is important as the constitutionally designated language becomes a basic mode of expression of nationalistic feelings. In a country like Nepal, with its complex ethno-linguistic diversity, a clear and fair evaluation of languages should be made in order to make the entire process inclusive. The issue of the policy guiding the selection of a common language has become a serious concern in Nepal, particularly since a large number of indigenous languages are now recognized.
In Nepal, there is no indigenous language whose native speakers can be said to have an absolute majority in national population. However, the case of Nepali cannot be compared with other languages since the various censuses of Nepal (1951/52-2001) have shown how a vast majority of the population uses it as the language of discourse (e.g., 58.36 percent in 1981; 50.31 percent in 1991 and 48.61 percent in 2001). This implies that the language selected as the national language should have at least a clear majority of the population speaking in it. Taking this argument further, one could claim that the role of a common language can be assigned to any language if it meets certain criteria.
Selecting a common language is important. The constitutionally designated language can be a mode for expression of nationalistic feelings.
Here, one might argue that if Nepali is chosen as the common language in the new constitution, we would be replicating the Panchayat-era one-language-one-dress paradigm. But such an argument completely misses the point. Instead of being viewed through the lens of politics and ethnicity, learning Nepali should be considered a matter of national pride.
In fragile state structures such as Nepal’s where ethnic identities ignite passions, the policy of selecting any language other than Nepali as the official language is never going to be easy. However, some people and especially political leaders from the Tarai region today demand Hindi be made the official language. Having more than one official language in such a small territory often weakens the process of national integration, cultural harmony and development. We need to learn lesson from those multilingual countries where more than one language is used as the official language. Papua New Guinea, where more than 700 languages are spoken, has three official languages, namely Hiri Motu, Tok Pisin and English.
Similarly, the Swiss confederation has recognized four official languages: French, German, Italian and Romansh. According to the 1990 census of Switzerland, 63.6 percent of the entire population has German as its “native tongue” (19.2 percent French, 7.6 percent Italian and 0.6 percent Romansh). Looking at this model, one might conclude that it is possible for two or more languages to share official status. In the context of Nepal, whether we accept it or not, languages such as Hindi and English are used extensively and have certain official approval.
Though Nepal is home to a large number of indigenous languages, it does not mean that each should be turned into a provincial language. The government has to be cautious while implementing the LPP in its federal states. States with multilingual populations can choose one or two local languages (based on the total population of speakers) to be used alongside the common language—here I am recommending Nepali—as the official or link language(s). As in India, Nepal can thus choose some provincial languages as per the requirements of federal states. Bihar in east India, for instance, has Hindi and Urdu as its official state languages, while Maithili and Magahi are other popular languages of discourse.
But the linguistic situation in Nepal is more complicated. For example, Nepali is spoken in 49 districts, six of which have an absolute majority of native language speakers. In the eastern Tarai, Maithili is spoken in six districts, and as a majority language in five of them. In three districts, there is a majority of Bhojpuri speakers whereas Awadi, Tamang and Limbu have majority speaking populations in two districts each. Such a linguistic setting makes it difficult to designate any particular language as a provincial language apart from Nepali, though the preservation and promotion of minority languages and culture is only possible if they are accorded a suitable status.
ROLE OF ENGLISH
Though the 2001 census records only 1,037 speakers of English, its role in Nepal is as important as it is in India, Singapore, Cameroon and South Africa where it is used as an official language. According to Ronald Wardhaugh, internationalization is the adoption of a non-indigenous language of wider communication either as an official language or for such purposes as education and trade. Considering this, Nepal should not hesitate in accepting English as an official language in some of its federal states if its expected role in our education system and society is to fulfilled.
At a time when the political atmosphere is highly polarized, chances of an inclusive and comprehensive model of LPP seem dim. For this, a better solution would be start an open dialogue popular indigenous languages communities and constitute an expert panel with non-partisan members who can help extract vital information and data on the linguistic situation of Nepal.
The author is an independent researcher and lecturer of English education