Saturday, 16 January, 2021

Let’s Keep Our Tongues

Aashish Mishra

Have you noticed? Speaking pure Nepali is hard. Try to express yourself, your emotions, your feelings, using just Nepali words. Almost impossible!
Nepali is our de facto, previously de jure, national language, taught in schools and colleges all over the country and mandatory for government works. Yet, it is alarmingly declining among us. So, consider this and now try to imagine what the state of other languages must be.
Let’s put things in perspective. According to the 2011 census, there are 123 languages spoken in Nepal. Yet, only one is used by the state. This puts the speakers of 122 languages at a disadvantage, their tongue finding no space in the official sphere. These languages have long been portrayed as a hindrance to assimilation, an obstacle to unity, a speech tolerable among friends and family but unacceptable in formal settings.
Back in the Rana and Panchayat era, it was, in fact, illegal to openly converse in any language other than Nepali. Writing was punishable by imprisonment. Since then, things have slightly improved for the “ethnic” or “indigenous” languages owing to new laws and provisions. But one could argue that they have improved the linguistic situation the same way increased women representation has improved gender equality – better than what we had but still nothing to be proud of.
Then there is the great devil internet which has made English the default. You have to know English to be online, period. The result of all this - communities have been collectively discouraged, in their very souls, from carrying on their philological legacy. A prime example is how they have stopped teaching kids their mother tongue.
Languages are dying. And when languages die, so do identities. We are what we speak. Every aspect of our culture, traditions, settlements, literature, music and even our last names are derived or at least based on our society’s vernacular. When we lose the language, the building of our identity loses its foundation and becomes prone to collapse. Furthermore, a language is more than the sum of its words. It carries millennia of knowledge and world view. When a language dies, many unique perspectives die with it. Loss of native languages results in the loss of traditional wisdom, crucial for a community’s existence in the world.
Also, not teaching language to kids is intentionally detaching them from their ancestors. They will not be able to relate to their parents, grandparents and fore-parents because they will not understand their speech. They will feel out of place in their own families. They will be deprived of the voice that they feel their predecessors had. They will become rootless plants.
And all this for what? Assimilation is never brought about by speaking or not speaking a language. Many of us speak English fluently. Does that mean we can pass as English or American? The argument might be that, irrespective of assimilation, knowing English has opened a lot of doors for us. But, at the same time, this also shows that we need not give up our cultural diction to be able to learn and thrive in a second language. We were born speaking Nepali, we speak in Nepali with our family; yet, we picked up English and are doing quite well with it. Nepali does not hinder our abilities with English. So, why would our native language?
Not to mention, multilingual children are found to be smarter than unilingual ones. To reiterate, losing our language is losing the window to our history, parentage, culture and perception. And we must take the initiation ourselves; learn to speak and teach our juniors our languages. The onus is on us to keep our tongues. 

How do you feel after reading this news?