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Language policy: Decolonising the mind

Saacha Dorji, Teacher, Darla Middle Secondary School, Chukha

This article was published in the national newspaper,

May 29, 2016 Opinions 1 Comment 254 Views
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 peoples negative attitude towards its own
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
Educational Subjugation
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.
Ive 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 Thiongo 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 didnt 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. Thats 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
ones 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 mustnt 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 ones 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 ones 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.

And I like this comment. Thank you jbradley. We are in the same boat.
1. jbradley
May 30, 2016 at 12:10 pm
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
June 13, 2016 at 9:31 pm

Dear Saacha : would you give me your mail because i am writing a long ansswer to you ; and ,
following bad experience with the moderator who has erased some of my comments without my
opinion , although i had respected the guidelines on the top , i fear that he censure my answer
so use my mail Under :