Child reads Neva folk story, Dhaplaan Khyaa, from Durgalal Shrestha. Photo credit: ASHISH SHAKYAKATMANDU, Feb. 3 (IPS) – At the last count in Nepal, 129 languages were spoken, but even if new ones are identified, others are dying out. At least 24 of the languages and dialects spoken in Nepal are “at risk”, and the closest ones to disappear are Dura, Kusunda and Tillung, each of which has only one speaker.
“It won’t surprise me if these three languages are the next. If there is no one left to speak, we cannot save them, ”says Lok Bahadur Lopchan from the Language Commission of Nepal, which is entrusted with maintaining the linguistic diversity of Nepal.
If a language is spoken by fewer than 1,000 people, it is classified as “endangered”. Lopchan predicts that more than 37 other languages spoken in Nepal fall into this category and are likely to disappear in the next decade.
According to the 2019 Annual Report of the Language Commission of Nepal, the most widely spoken languages in the country are Nepali, Maithili, Bhojpuri, Tharu, Tamang, Nepal, Bhasa, Bajjika, Magar, Doteli and Urdu in that order.
But just as there are languages that are disappearing, new ones are being found in far-flung parts of the land that have never been recognized, such as Rana Tharu spoken in western Tarai, Narphu in a remote valley in Manang, Tsum in the Tsum Valley of Upper Gorkha, Nubri Larke in the Manaslu, Poike and Syarke region.
“It is fortunate that these languages have been identified, but it is unfortunate that they are spoken by very few people and could become extinct very soon,” says Lopchan, who adds that an indigenous language becomes extinct somewhere in the world every two weeks is.
Even those in the top ten most widely spoken in Nepal are losing their mother tongue status. Parents insist that they speak Nepali or English at school in order to offer their children good career prospects. And even since the reign of King Mahendra, the state has promoted Nepali as a lingua franca to the detriment of other national languages.
Supral Raj Joshi, 29, is a voice actor and grew up at home in Nepal Bhasa. But from elementary school on it was only in Nepali and English classes, and he soon forgot his mother tongue. When he was speaking to his Nepali family, he suddenly realized how much of his culture he had lost with the language.
“The loss of the Nepalese languages is the result of deliberate government policies. Our linguistic heritage has been swept away to promote a national character,” says Joshi.
King Mahendra took action to create a unified Nepalese identity through clothing, language, and even dismantled democracy, and introduced the non-partisan Panchayat system, which he said was “on Nepalese soil”.
Experts say the decision to enforce the idea of nationalism through language restricted indigenous communities to speaking their ancestral language.
“The dominant class has made their language the national language and other languages have suffered collateral damage in the process,” said Rajendra Dahal, editor of Shikshak magazine. “The end of a language is not just a loss for a community, but for the country and the world.”
There is an urgency at the Nepal Language Commission to save the three languages, each of which has only one speaker left. It has partnered with 45 year old Kamala Kusunda, the only living person in the world who speaks Kusunda. She now runs a small private school in Dang to teach the language to over 20 students.
“When I die, my mother tongue dies with me. I had to revive this language for its value to our people and the hope of keeping our ancestral language alive, ”Kamal Kusunda told the Nepali Times on the phone.
Muktinath Ghimire in Lamjung does a similar job. As the only remaining speaker for Dura, he is preparing to start a school to teach the language to others in the community. “We cannot let this language die,” he says.
Other languages such as Tsum, more recently identified as distinct dialects, were already at risk when they were identified as uniquely different.
“Older people in Tsum Valley only speak tsum, but the younger generation is losing the language,” says Wangchuk Rapten Lama, a fluent Tsum speaker who is working to broaden its use by teaching children the language through cultural activities .
Canada-based linguistic anthropologist Mark Turin worked with the Thangmi in Dolakha and Sindhupalchok to document their endangered language.
“To speak of linguists to save Languages are just as ridiculous as referring to apps and digital technologies save up Language, ”he says. “Neither is true, and field linguistics is still dominated by quite colonial and extraivist models of knowledge production.”
He says indigenous language speakers like Thangmi deserve the credit as they work tirelessly to reclaim, rejuvenate, and revitalize their ancestral languages, often in the face of significant opposition.
“Indigenous youth in these communities are now creating areas of use in which the ancestral languages can flourish again, in print, online and on the air. This is the true work of language revival and recovery and deserves wider recognition, ”added Turin.
After Nepal switched to federal mode, schools across the country were expected to teach regional languages. Article 31 of the constitution states: “Every Nepalese community living in Nepal has the right to acquire education in their mother tongue up to secondary level and the right to open and operate schools and educational institutions in accordance with the legal provisions.”
The curriculum development center and rural communities introduced a “local curriculum” with 100 points. For example, the Bhaktapur and Gokarna communities have curricula designed to educate students about their own communities. While some schools offer mother tongues as an option, a majority choose the “local curriculum”.
In October 2020 the mayor of Kathmandu, Bidya Sundar Shakya, obliged the schools to teach Nepal Bhasa from the 1st to the 8th grade. But there were mixed reactions from parents, with many feelings that it would burden the students and that their Nepali and English would suffer.
“We tried to offer formal courses to students in Nepal Bhasa for years, but guardians have shown little interest, even though we know children thrive when they learn new languages,” said Jyoti Man Sherchan, former headmaster of Malpi International School a Thakali Language club at school.
“Parents are more interested in their children knowing English or Mandarin. Change is only possible if the government steps in and provides resources and training to teach our own mother tongues, ”says Sherchan.
However, there are restrictions in residential schools that have students from all over Nepal. It is impossible to get everyone to speak different languages.
Province 2 is different because the Tarai counties are the most multilingual in the country. In Birganj, for example, most of the people speak Maithili and Bhojpuri and they also speak Hindi, Nepali, or English.
“Although the schools here do not teach ancestral languages, most of the children at home continue to speak Maithili and Bhojpuri,” explains writer Chandra Kishore. “English and Nepali were taught in my school, but the middle language for explaining these languages was Maithili.
Languages stop developing once people stop talking to them. Ancestral languages are also needed to anchor a people in their heritage and to give them a unique identity. With globalization and the Internet, this is becoming increasingly difficult worldwide.
“My young children only speak English,” says Saraswati Lama, who is married to a Rai and works for a non-profit organization in Kathmandu. “My daughter learned it from YouTube and she taught it to her younger brother.” Neither lama nor her husband speak their own mother tongues and speak to each other with Nepali.
But nowadays, the country’s linguistic heritage seems to be more valued in the Nepalese diaspora. Sujan Shrestha was born in Kathmandu but moved to the United States during his school days. Now he is a professor at the University of Maryland in Baltimore and says his wife and children only speak English and Nepal Bhasa and no Nepali.
“Nepal Bhasa gives the children an identity and connects them with the extended family, especially their grandparents. It is about teaching our children cultural sensitivity and openness towards other cultures and people. ”
This story was originally published by the Nepali Times
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