Let us all speak our languages

It needs to be ensured that not a single language becomes extinct. If it does, then it means Nepal has failed to live up to its constitutional ethos.


Jivesh Jha and Bidhan Chandra Jha

  • Read Time 7 min.

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in the language he speaks, that goes to his heart.” Nelson Mandela.

Everybody loves the mother tongue as it provides a framework through which a person interprets and interacts. In order to sustain and develop the language given by mother and safeguard the precious history of languages, the United Nations Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organization (UNESCO), in 1999, declared February 21 as the International Mother Language Day to observe and celebrate the indigenous languages world over. In 2002, the UN General Assembly adopted its resolution 56/262 on multilingualism and welcomed the decision of the General Conference of UNESCO to declare February 21 as International Mother Language Day.

As per UNESCO, almost half of the world’s approximately 6000 languages are under threat, dying and/or seriously endangered. If the study of Ethnologue is something to rely upon, roughly 40 percent of the languages are endangered, often with less than 1000 speakers remaining. Interestingly, just 23 languages account for more than half the world population.  Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi and Arabic are the most widely spoken languages across the world when only first languages are considered. These five languages account for what is spoken by over 40 percent of people worldwide. The International Year of Indigenous Languages was observed by the UN in 2019 to raise awareness of the consequences of endangerment of the indigenous languages.  

Constitutional landscape

Nepal’s constitution has adopted a progressive language policy. Article 6 of the constitution provides that all languages spoken in Nepal shall be the national languages. Further, Article 7 declares that the Nepali language written in the Devnagari script shall be the official language of Nepal. In addition to this, Nepal’s constitution gives exclusive powers to provinces to make laws for the protection and promotion of languages.  

It guarantees the right to language as a fundamental right. As per Article 32, each person and community would have the right to use, protect and promote their language. The arrangement then goes on to ensure that every person and community would have the right to participate in the cultural life of their community. This provision seeks to foster unity in diversity. The protection and promotion of languages, scripts, cultures, cultural civilizations and heritages would help us to protect our national identity before the world.

As a matter of fact, a mere guarantee of fundamental rights would not make much sense unless the governments at the federal and provincial levels are directed to adopt policies, laws and frameworks for the protection of indigenous languages. In this respect, Article 51, which deals with the Directive Principles, empowers the state to promote the multi-lingual policy of the state and preserve and develop the languages spoken across Nepal.

 Article 287 provisions for the establishment of the Language Commission. The functions of the Language Commission have been enlisted under Clause 6 which says that this constitutional body would have to determine the basis for a language to acquire the status of official language and forward a recommendation to the Government of Nepal. Along with this, the Commission has a solemn duty to recommend measures for protection, promotion and development of mother languages. To realize these goals, the federal government is under an obligation to establish branch offices of the Language Commission in provinces and it is also obliged to conduct research for the sustainable development of languages.

Nepali is the largest speaking language in Nepal while Maithili is the second-largest speaking national language. According to the 2011 national census, the percentage of Nepali-speaking people is about 46.6 while the percentage of Maithili speakers stood at 11.57. The official data suggests that approximately 123 languages are used as the first languages in Nepal.  

Jivesh Jha (L) and Bidhan Chandra Jha

Nepal’s constitution has adopted a liberal approach regarding language policy-making. Even the provincial legislature has jurisdiction over language. In this regard, Schedule-VI, entry 18 places obligation over the provinces to enact laws for the promotion and preservation of language. Maithili is the primary language in Nepal’s seven districts—Sunsari, Saptari, Siraha, Dhanusha, Mahottari, Rautahat and Sarlahi—and it is the second-largest language spoken in Morang and Nawalparasi. In Bara and Parsa, Bhojpuri remains as the first language—making it the third-largest spoken language of Nepal.

What does education law suggest?

Under Part-4 of the Right to Compulsory and Free Education Act, 2018, there is an obligation on the state to provide necessary requirements for ensuring school education in the mother tongue—the language given by the mother.  The expression “mother tongue” is defined under Section 2 (k) which envisages that the mother tongue could be one among any languages spoken in the Nepali community and mother tongue-based education could also be multi-lingual education. This provision serves two goals in particular. One, the Act directs the state to provide a favorable atmosphere for the schoolgoing children to acquire education in their mother tongue. Two, the crafters allow the imparting of education in multi-language which may provide an opportunity for students to learn more than one local language. This approach may cement the cause of linguistic diversity in the country.

The lack of proficiency in Nepali and English is limiting the opportunities of youths in southern plains and thereby creating islands of exclusion.

Moreover, a community is allowed to establish educational institutions accordingly. However, the local units or the provincial government should play an instrumental role in additional arrangements regarding the imparting of education in the mother tongue. This provision seeks to foster the cause of fundamental rights such as the right to language and culture of Article 32. If the students acquire education in their mother tongue, their right to use their language or participate in cultural life would be secured. This provision is in pursuance of Article 29 (1) (c) of the Convention on Rights of Children which places an obligation on signatory states to provide education to children in their own cultural identity, language and values.

In this regard, a 2017 report of Central Bureau of Statistics—Education in Figures, 2017—shows that the government has developed and published textbooks in 24 mother tongues including in Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Tamang, Limbu among other languages. Moreover, efforts should be made to impart, at least, primary level education in Maithili, Bhojpuri and other mother tongues so that the students would have the opportunity to grasp the texts easily. 

The Right to Free Education Act (2018) has been enacted to enforce Article 31 of the constitution dealing with the right to education. Understandably, Article 31(5) envisages that citizens have the right to acquire school education in their mother tongue and to conduct educational institutions accordingly.

Global precedents  

The right to language and culture has been protected as a revered right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 2); International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) (Article 2); and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) (Article 2, 4, and 24). The Vienna Declaration guarantees every person the right to use their own language in private and in public freely and without interference or any form of discrimination. Similarly, the Declaration on the Rights of persons belonging to national or ethnic, religious and linguistic minorities under Article 4 obliges the states to impart education in mother tongues. Article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of Child (CRC) declares that every person has the right to use, enjoy his/her own language. Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity ensures the right of every person to protect their own cultural practices through the use of mother tongues [Article 5]. The 1990’s UNESCO convention advocated for “education for all” to champion the cause of the right to education globally.   

Enforcing the legal mandates 

As a matter of fact, Nepal has been working for language development in one way or the other. The constitutions of 1990, 2007, and 2015 too guided the state to adopt policies and legal frameworks for the development of languages spoken in the country. However, the 2015 constitution brought a substantial change in the educational landscape by introducing “free and compulsory education” for Nepalis.  

However, the government has grossly failed to execute these commendable constitutional provisions. In school or college-level education, English and Nepali occupy the position of the medium of instruction.  Sadly enough, Sanskrit, which is the mother language of almost all Asian languages, remains under threat of extinction for the government has not done anything substantive to preserve it.  

While there were many constitutional changes in the country, the sections that immediately address language policy and education remained unchanged from those in the Constitution of 1990,’ writes Miranda Weinberg, a research scholar of University of Pennsylvania, in her article titled, “Revisiting History in Language Policy: The Case of Medium of Instruction in Nepal” published in 2013 in the journal of Working Papers in Educational Linguistics: A Journal of the University of Pennsylvania, Volume 28(1). She argues that Nepali is dominant in school education as well.

In addition to this, the government’s failure in introducing as well as recruiting teachers for optional subjects of major languages spoken in Nepal gives a vivid picture that we are good at enactment but poor at enforcement. The available data projects a grim face of reality and requires provincial governments’ interventions to improve the situation. As per data of CBS, 2017, the literacy rate (of five years and above) in province-1, Province-2, Province-3, Province-4, Province-5, Province-6, and Province-7 stands at 71, 50, 75, 75, 66, 63, 63 and 65 percent respectively. This data shows that Province-2 (now, Madhesh Province) lags behind in terms of education as well.

We humbly submit that the imparting of school and college education in the mother language could work as a catalyst to improve the situation in Madhesh. The lack of proficiency in Nepali and English is limiting the opportunities of youths in southern plains and thereby creating islands of exclusion.

Under the current regime, a person is not entitled to write civil service examinations or university or board examinations in her mother tongue. The mere presence of cosmetic laws would not make much difference unless they are given due effect. In India, a person is allowed to write exams or lodge FIR or perform any governmental functions in Hindi or any of the 22 languages mentioned under Schedule-VIII of the Constitution.   

It’s high time to understand that language is a tool for intellectual and emotional expression. It plays a pivotal role in the inter-generational transfer of traditional knowledge, arts, crafts, and intellectual properties as a whole. The mother languages are like the DNA of a person.

The use of foreign languages could not connect us with the country’s core worldviews, thoughts, and traditional knowledge. We will be cut off from our roots if we discount our own languages. Such an act would lead us nowhere.  Efforts should be made to ensure that not even a single language gets extinct. But, if the situation goes otherwise, it would be our failure to uphold the constitutional ethos.

Jivesh Jha and Bidhan Chandra Jha are Judicial Officers at Dhanusha District Court, Janakpurdham.