Language, culture and identity

Mind our language

Mind our language

On 24 June 2009, H.E Pavan K. Verma, India’s ambassador to Bhutan, talked about Culture, Identity and Globalization. The talk, which was organized by the Centre for Bhutan Studies, was attended by wide cross section of people, from scholars, teachers and civil servants to consultants, businesswomen and politicians.

Ambassador Verma, an accomplished scholar and writer, warned his audience that, due to the unprecedented reach of globalization, change in Bhutan is inevitable. And that unless we have an intimate knowledge of our own culture – a knowledge that can only come from deep introspection – we will not be able to exercise discriminating choice about change and tradition; we will not be able to stay anchored to our culture, our identity and to GNH.

But he also noted that Bhutan is blessed with vision and resolve. The vision – that of a society that changes, yet is fully conscious of its culture and identity – is a gift from His Majesty the King. And the resolve, to achieve this vision, is articulated in the Constitution.

Ambassador Verma also touched on an issue that I thought was particularly important for us: language. Culture, apparently, is hard-wired to one’s brain before the person turns 18. And, native language – or mother tongue – plays a significant role in that process.

Our country has barely 600,000 people. Dzongkha is our national language. And, we have about 20 other languages and dialects. These range from Tsangla and Khengkha which are widely spoken, to Moenpai-kha, Lhopi-kha, Gongdugpi-kha and Chalipi-kha which are already classified as “endangered dialects”.

The medium of instruction in our schools is English. So every school-going child learns this foreign albeit global language. And English is the preferred language among much of the educated elite. This is inevitable. And may even be good.

But I am concerned. Hence, the last poll on our national language.

60% of you can speak, read and write Dzongkha. 21% can speak and read, but cannot write Dzongkha. 11% can speak, but not read or write Dzongkha. And only 8% cannot even speak the national language. In other words, 81% can speak and read Dzongkha. That’s not bad. And, 92% can speak Dzongkha. Not bad at all.

Our polls are not accurate. But still, the results are reassuring.

Now what about me? My spoken Dzongkha is barely passable (you’ve seen me struggle in the National Assembly); I read, but very slowly; and I cannot write. I must learn to write. I must learn sumtag and ngadroen.

Our next poll is about women in our society.


Facebook Comments:


  1. I don’t at all believe in this poll as vast majority of people are in village who haven’t even seen or heard of computer and internet! Wel if you are referring to those among people who have access to internet and who voted here, i think the result is positive one.
    whatever it is I am the first person to vote for women in our society! Ha ha…i voted YES and i am sure i will win the contest…….

    good luck lonely opposition leader

  2. Dear Mr. Tshering Tobgay,
    Perhaps you could help me in this biased issue.I was born in bhutan, educated in bhutan..can read, write and speak dzongkha..right now i am working as an engineer in a private company in bhutan..However i am placed in F5 in census.My parents have a valid marriage certificate from a court in bhutan which is dated 1989. I am ready to take any kind of test for this if required.Please help.
    please dont mail a reply to the above address. it is fake one. You can reply in your blog.I will go through it.
    Thank you.

  3. i remember a slogan from my university in celebration of the national language month here saying (written in the local language of course) “my head was taught the english language, but my heart/spirit learned the filipino language.”

    we’ve had a lot of debates regarding what the national language should be considering that the country also has many languages and dialects dispersed around the islands. in the end, we celebrate the “Filipino” language, argued to be predominantly the language (Tagalog) of the capital region, also mandated to be taught in primary schools aside from english. also considered a lingua franca, or vehicular language for communication around the islands which, i believe, functionally incorporates words and ideas from the different languages and dialects used and understood in the islands.

  4. i said that i can read , write and speak dzongkha, but if you say that you cant, then i am reconsidering……the standard seems really high. my reasoning was that i can write fairly well, except for the atrocious spelling mistakes….!
    For a lhotsham, i think i do pretty well, and this is majorly thanks to some really great dzongkha lopens i had, especially lopen sangay wangchuk, who taught me in class six, i wonder where he is…but he taught us the importance of having a good handwriting, and understanding dzongkha, and actually expressing oneself in it, he even liked my essays, which were more to the point unlike traditional style….and he even overlooked my spelling, which was very encouraging. Thanks to him, i can actually follow national assembly proceedings, and write about them without having to consult someone. I dont know if the standard of dzongkha is going down these days or not, thats what i read sometime back…but i sure hope there are more lopens like him around. I think that is the single most important thing in learning good dzongkha…great teachers.
    Oh, and when i was a kid, lopens were a scary tribe, they used to carry those ‘taytha’ things and whip us on the legs….that sure didnt help! the first lopen i wasnt scared of was this lopen, and he was also one guy whose class i looked forward to. i am sure this doesnt happen anymore, with a bit of sensitsation, i hope it doesnt, at least.

    • I think it is the interest in the language. If you are into it you will learn it. Good or bad teacher, it is the pupil.

      • true. but when u are kids, you need to be encouraged. beating didn’t help. and since we learn from pre primary, we should be doing pretty good, much better than poll results show. its the sign of a problem.

  5. Just out of curiosity.. two questions…

    How did your parents manage to produce, raise you and make you an engineer within a short period 20 years?

    You said your parents got married in 1989 and now you are an engineer?

    And why are you raising this issue here? and in a public forum?

  6. Dear whoever you are,
    every time some one raises issue of census status in Bhutan, it ignites sparks. What is so private about census status? Do you want to talk about security clearance in Public Forum? I can see one is frustrated and other one is not supportive.
    Thousands are suffering and once in a while few are complaining. Don’t let it be, it should be solved at one point of time. And it is about time. Poor guy is complaining because there is no private forum for these issues, I just hope that he does not go to BBC and CNN websites. You know what I mean?
    During the election campaign in the southern Dzongkhag, candidates had secretly promised to resolve the issues in return for their votes. Unresolved issues prevailing among the masses are not good for the future of democracy. Vibrant Democracy would be long miles from home. Politicians will play on this ground, corruption , violence etc. might prevail. Remember, some one had actually let loose those secret document during the campaign, those documents could come under the matter of national interest, don’t you think so? People will do anything for that kabney, pathang and all the perks politicians are entitled to.

    600,000 pe0ple why should we discriminate one from the other. Help each other to grow, make plans for the future. Bhutan has long way to go, it will take longer if we don’t come together.

  7. Lam Kezang says

    Dear readers,
    T improve your Dzongkha please read a recent book in Dzongkha called ‘DRU-GI NORBU’that gives lots of insight.

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