In Nepal the students who go to private and boarding schools are exposed to the English language from an early age. The first lessons taught at homes as well as in schools are in the English language, along with the Devnagari script. In many private schools, students are penalised for speaking in Nepali except during Nepali language classes. By virtue of the global acceptability of English language, the stress to achieve proficiency in it cannot be questioned. The language has become a source of security for many, but the unequal access to it has increased insecurity for others.
The use of any language is more than just being able to communicate; it is about expressing the inner-self, claiming rights and dynamic identities and interests.Language connects as well as divides people. Linguistic differences in the process have caused many revolutions and increased the sense of insecurity for many.Language also constructs identity; it is a source of belongingness. When people speak a language it connects them to their histories, ethnicities, social groups/class and religion. However, when popularity of one language outweighs the other, categorisation starts between people, creating a divide in the society.
The English language gained foothold in South Asia with the establishment of British rule in India. Slowly through administrative provisions and changes in the education system, in India, the language made a place for itself alongsideHindi which was the official language. Soon, the language pervaded much of South Asia.
Nepal is a linguistically diverse nation. There are around 123 different languages that are spoken in the country. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics Nepal (2011), 44.6% population speak the official national language that is Nepali. Unlike its neighbouring countries, Nepal was not colonised but was under the Rana autocracy for 104 years.The Rana autocracy was not in favour of widespread education policies to commoners. It was after Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana’s visit to England in the 1850s, that the first government run English medium school was established in the country, but it was open to only Rana families and other elites because they feared an educated and empowered public which could revolt against their tyranny. Slowly, other liberal prime ministers established Nepali medium schools in several cities around the country for the public as well. A few English medium schools were established in Kathmandu and other major cities before the Second World War. Later in the year 1918 country’s first post-secondary institution was established to lessen the flow of students travelling to India for further studies.
The end of Rana autocracy in the1950s brought democracy in the country which was followed by the establishment of the Shah Dynasty and under the new monarchy, certain major changes took place. A constitution was finally promulgated in 1959 and major reforms were made in the education sector. The new king focused on accessibility to educational opportunities with large number of students having access to education. This included the establishment of the Ministry of Education which appointed a Board of Education and Nepal National Educational Planning Commission (NNEPC) to direct reforms regarding school management and governance. This gave the government lesser control over schools and the role of community and school management was strengthened. The educational plan of NNEPC, 1956, was in favour of promoting Nepali as the medium of instruction in schools to strengthen national unity and establish a unilingual nation. In 1960s, the then King Mahendra over threw the popularly elected government to establish a non-party Panchayat System, but at the same time the major education reform of 1971 supported the education plan of 1956.Though after the 1970s, English was recognised as an international language of science. The National Education System Plan (NESP) nationalised the education system in the1970sin a bid to promote the Nepali language, a common religion and to ensure people’s faith to the monarch through education, politics and the media. However, it had to amend its policies due to financial and social pressures in 1980s. It decided to support the privatisation of education. English language once again flourished as the medium of instruction and learning.
The restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990s again changed the Nepali educational policies and programs. Under the influence of globalisation post the 1990s, Nepal experienced an overhauling of the higher education system. The National Education Commission (1992) suggested the government to design appropriate education policies at par with other SAARC and industrialised nations. Funds from international organisations like the World Bank (WB), the Asian Development Bank (ADB) flooded Nepal. These international institutions brought with them a culture which was westernised and favoured those who were proficient in the English language.
The ten year long insurgency under the Maoists (1996-2006) had caused chaos in the country. The civil war impacted industries and educational institutions were majorly affected. The period saw an increase in the out migration of people for purposes of work and education.As people returned to Nepal post the insurgency, a significant change that emerged in the society was the ease with which English established itself. The language percolated into the Nepalese society through education, influence of international organisations, role of global food chains and establishment of technology hubs. The media also played a major player in the spread of English in Nepali society. This happened through the dissemination of international news, increasing influence of English movies, advertisements, and television channels. English suddenly became symbolic of one’s status in society.
Nepal’s foreign policy is greatly influenced by her neighbours, and with India becoming the second largest English speaking country after the Unites States of America and China investing greatly in English language education, it is not surprising that the Nepalese Government has become proactive in promoting the English language. Even though the constitution of Nepal does not recognise English as the official language, however the Public Service (PSC) exams can be written in English. Some public schools are being retrofitted as ‘model schools’ which run separate boarding wing with English language courses to lower secondary level at an upgraded fees. Given the increasing English speaking population, the importance attached to it has caused considerable panic in a linguistically diverse society like ours. It would be useful to consider whether the globally accepted language has increased the level of insecurity for the non- English speaking population. The importance that was attached to English was not because of the number of people who spoke the language; it had to do with the power that comes with it.
The dissemination of English language in Nepal happened under the purview of the state. The revised education policy of directing institutes to make the language primary as well as secondary mode of instruction came from the state. The society is divided between those who go to public schools run by the government and private schools where the curriculum is in English. Public schools have an affordable fee structure and less or no emphasis on the English language in general. Private schools on the other hand are expensive and claim to provide students access to an education that would equip them to deal meet the demands of globalisation and consequently benefit from it.
The government has given English enhanced status in the country to establish a favourable image of Nepal internationally. More often than not the non-state organisations in the rural areas operate within an institutional framework biased towards English.
While many are debating the threat to the linguistic diversity in Nepal posed by the English language most agree that the language which once belonged to the elites should now be accessed by the commoner. A country which saw only a few hundred graduates a few years ago, now produces thousands of them with access to the English language. It is widely recognised today in Nepal that the English language gives her citizens a comparative advantage even if it may not ensure access to opportunity at all costs.
(The author is a freelance researcher and has a Master’s degree in International Relations from South Asian University, New Delhi.)