This article was published in the national newspaper, Kuensel.
A language will become dormant and ultimately vanish when it is no longer spoken as the first or primary language. It disappears when its speakers disappear or when a community of speakers of one language becomes bilingual in another language, and gradually shift to speaking another language – most often, a dominant language used by a more powerful people.
The loss of language is not primarily caused by external forces such as military, but it is caused by educational subjugation and also internal forces, such as people’s negative attitude towards its own language.
The loss of language has consequences much wider than simply losing expressions. It means losing identity, culture, history and crucial knowledge.
A dying language in Bhutan
The loss of language in many countries is to be blamed on education. The English language is beginning to conquer and contribute to a language shift in our country too. The education policy of Bhutan is that we must only speak the English language in the classes and the schools. By and by, our mother tongue dialects like Khengkha, Kurtoep, Sharchop are vulnerable as most children speak English, and our local languages are restricted to home. Now local languages are mostly used by grandparents and older generations and even if our younger generations speak it, they speak the language partially and infrequently.
In schools, I remember we were punished for speaking our own mother tongue. The schools’ goal was to assimilate children into the English language and culture. We had to wear the tag labeled ‘Speak English,’ for speaking Sharchop or we were made to cut grass or even beaten badly just for speaking the native language. And this trend is still there in the schools. But little has it been reformed as language policy is being framed and students are made to use only English and Dzongkha in the schools, and corporal punishment is not as common now like before. English has become the measure of intelligence. We have been rewarding any achievement in spoken or written English. And we tend to think that all things originating from the West are symbols of enlightenment and progress, and all things associated with what we have are primitive and inferior.
And when or if this continues for more generations, it plays an active role in language death. If children are not speaking it now, then children will probably not speak it in the next 50 years.
Negative attitudes by parents and community
Today, if children are with their parents, they might be punished for speaking their native language at home. Parents today encourage their children to speak and learn the English language instead of their heritage language. Babies are taught other words and languages, not mother tongues. We are bombarded with American, British and Hindi shows, movies and games, language and many young people think they are cool and anything Bhutanese is not. We have negative attitudes towards our own language that might lead to languages becoming endangered. Our students and parents feel ashamed and outdated when they speak their native languages. We have different views of where we belong.
I’ve met many Bhutanese people whose English and Hindi skills are arguably better than their Sharchop or Dzongkha.
What does language extinction mean for the rest of us?
The extinction of a language results in the loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in it for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge that may be useful for many. Language is the knowledge-vessel of tradition and heritage. Many oral stories in Bhutan are passed down through its language, so when the language disappears, it may take with it important information about the early history of the society.
The extinction of a language results in the loss of culture. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o says that language carries aesthetics of a culture; the entire body of values by which we come to perceive ourselves and our place in the world. Ngugu (Decolonising the Mind) says that colonial power didn’t use any weapon to fight and colonise African countries. Language was used as both an insidious tool for imperialism as well as a weapon of resistance for colonised peoples. With language, they disrupted the entire fabric of the lives of their victims; in particular their culture, making them ashamed of their names, history, systems of belief, languages, lore, art, dance, song, sculpture; even the colour of their skin. That’s why Ngugi considers English in Africa a “cultural bomb” that continues a process of wiping out pre-colonial histories and identities.
The loss of language results in people attempting to assimilate with other communities, thereby losing one’s identity. Language is a powerful symbol of identity. Much of the cultural, spiritual, and intellectual life of a people is experienced through language. This ranges from prayers, myths, ceremonies, poetry, oratory, and technical vocabulary to everyday greetings, leave-takings, conversational styles, humour, ways of speaking to children, and terms for habits, behaviours, and emotions. When a language is lost, all of this must be refashioned in the new language-with different words, sounds, and grammar.
The education system
The most important thing that can be done to keep a language from disappearing is to change education policy. Education system should support mother-tongue instruction or multilingual education, and create favorable conditions for its speakers to speak the language and teach it to their children. We cannot teach in our language, but we can use local languages in teaching to uphold our native language. Children mustn’t learn that their language and their culture are worthless, of no use in the modern classroom or society like in our education system. Our languages should be given attention in all education policies and it should be drawn up by the government. UNESCO also acts on many fronts to safeguard endangered languages and prevent their disappearance. It says, “In education, UNESCO supports policies promoting multilingualism and especially mother tongue literacy. It supports the language component of indigenous education and raises awareness of the importance of language preservation in education.”
Increase of prestige
Since the most crucial factor is the attitude of the speakers toward their own language, it is essential to create a social and political environment that encourages multilingualism and respect for minority languages so that speaking such a language is an asset rather than a liability. Speaking one’s language should be a matter of pride rather than feeling detached from others. Children and parents must not think that their mother tongues are non-standard languages, wrong to speak, inferior, for the uneducated, and should be abandoned.
The loss of language has great impact on one’s identity, culture and knowledge. Knowing this, there are many things to be formulated in education or students’ learning as it is the main factor of degrading local language. So that we can change the mentality of our own language and speak with pride.
Darla Middle Secondary School
And I like this comment. Thank you jbradley. We are in the same boat.
Hello Saacha Dorji, all that you say is so true. I work in Australia with Indigenous languages, I have seen in 35 years of teaching and research three languages die, or at least only have one or two very elderly speakers. The result is a youth whose identity is not strong and thus they are open to many kinds of social ills such as drug and alcohol addiction, anti-social behaviours and most extremely suicide. Having ones own language respected and used also creates a very strong sense of well being. A person who has lost their own languages is, as you say and scholars such as Mignolo and Ngugi a colonised mind. Having visited Bhutan and sensed these issues I wish you all the best in this most important endeavour.
John Bradley, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
John Bradley, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia