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.

Teaching history


My son, Gyamtsho Tshering, 17 years, Class XI, is home for his winter vacations. My wife and I are delighted to have our family together, and have often worried that our son has had to be away from home for most parts of the year.

Gyamtsho studies in St Joseph’s School, also known as “North Point”, in Darjeeling, India.

Why is he in North Point? Because while he was at Lungtenzampa MSS, the government decided to teach Bhutan history in Dzongkha. His mother had been seriously concerned. “Even as a subject, most students find Dzongkha difficult” she had grumbled, “so how can they use it to learn history properly?” I agreed. Plus most people, especially teachers, had complained that Dzongkha language teachers wouldn’t know enough of history to teach it, and most history teachers wouldn’t be able to teach in Dzongkha.

So we sent him to Darjeeling, despite the emotional and financial hardships.

Now it looks like 10 researchers contacted 96 schools and 15,000 students to establish what most parents have known all along – that teaching history in Dzongkha may not be such a good idea. I hope that the government takes the research findings seriously and acts quickly to undo years of damage.

But some of the damage can’t be undone. If, as the researchers conclude, teaching history in Dzongkha has failed, then, we must accept that, in the last three years, thousands of our students have learnt little history and they probably now dislike Dzongkha even more. Not good for the students. Not good for our national language. Not good for our country.

As for our son, we have not regretted. He receives a well rounded education in North Point, where academic standards are high and a premium is placed on values, sports, music, art, social work and leadership.

And guess who the principal of North Point is? Father Kinley, a Bhutanese! Five years ago, he was sent to revive North Point, a school that had deteriorated over the years. His challenge was to turn the school around. His tool was complete authority and autonomy to do so. And in five years, in spite of the political turmoil there, he has more than turn the school around. Father Kinley’s efforts are already being recognized – Educational World Magazine recently declared that North Point as one of the top 10 residential schools in all of India.

It’s obvious. Bhutanese teachers are capable. Give them the right incentives, some support and a little authority and autonomy, and they will deliver. And remember, good heads make good schools.