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.