EDITORIAL: Speak your language

As the local levels are responsible for school education upto class 12, their support to provide early education in the mother tongue would greatly help

Nepal, with a population of about 30 million, is a rich mosaic of 123 ethnic groups and 125 languages, which give the country its lingual, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity that has helped maintain Nepal’s integrity and sovereignty for centuries. Sadly, however, quite a few of the country’s languages are on the verge of becoming extinct sooner than later, and with them their culture and traditions. Unless the government is willing to intervene, there are little chances of reviving these languages. One of them is the language spoken by the indigenous Lohorung community in Province 1 in east Nepal. According to Nepal’s census-2011, there are only 3,633 Lohorung speakers in the country, a figure that has not increased and could start falling in the near future. The status of some other languages of the country is even worse. Take the case of the Kusunda language. The 2011 census recorded only 273 Kusunda people - who are former hunter-gatherers of the forests of western and central Nepal - with just 28 who could speak the language. And with the death of some fluent speakers due to old age in recent years, the language has more or less become extinct.

Many of the languages are dying out due to social and economic reasons. When people of these communities marry into other communities, it impacts their mother tongue. And their offspring are less likely to pick up the language. Marriage apart, migration is a big factor for the declining population of certain languages. There is not only migration within the country but also outside for work, with the youth unlikely to return to their community. In a country where the Nepali and English languages have become the standard means of communication between the people, the parents could be the only ones speaking an ethnic language. Their siblings neither speak nor understand the language. So what is the point of being a Kusunda, Lohorung or a member of any other ethnic group if you do not know your language?

Can something be done to preserve our vanishing languages? We could take a cue from Israel, where the Hebrew language, which was limited to being the sacred language of Judaism, has been converted to a spoken and written language, and in 2018 made the sole official language of that country. But this required the intervention of the state, and immigrants who came streaming from all over the world took a passion for the language. In Nepal, some effort is being made to revive some of the languages. The Language Commission has been trying to preserve 29 languages out of the 125 spoken in Nepal. It has been running classes in three languages that are on the verge of extinction – Kusunda, Dura and Tilung – in Dang. In Kathmandu and elsewhere, Newari classes are held regularly to teach both the language and its script, the Ranjanalipi. Now that the local levels are responsible for school education upto class 12, their support to provide early education in the mother tongue would greatly help. This will require developing a standard dictionary, digital content and school textbooks in the different languages. A language cannot be allowed to die. It will erase an important passage of human heritage.

Retrieving public land

The tendency of encroaching upon public land – river banks, forests, roadsides, parks and public schools – was on the rise across the country during the Maoist insurgency, when the law and order situation was largely dysfunctional. Most of the people have been found encroaching upon the forests, posing as landless squatters, when they are displaced by natural disasters like floods and landslides in the hills and Tarai regions. It is difficult to remove those people once they occupy such land. Encroachment of public land in the urban areas is no exception, either.

However, with the election of the three tiers of government, the local levels are gearing up to retrieve the encroached land by giving them ample time to evacuate from there. In a recent case, Kathmandu Metropolitan City-31 removed the huts illegally built at Tinkune. The city officials had to use force to reclaim the land after the encroachers paid no heed to its 18-day notice. The public spaces must be preserved so that they can be utilised for the larger interest of the people. No public space should be allowed to be misused by individuals. The drive to retrieve all public land must be intensified all over the country.