English is one of the local languages in Nepal: Dr. Giri

· Interview

Ram Ashish Giri, PhD

Ram A. Giri, PhD, academic staff at Monash University, English Language Centre, Melbourne, teaches and researches issues related to ELICOS courses, TESOL, language testing, and language (education) policy. In his extensive career spreading over Nepal and Australia, he has published in international journals, written book chapters, and published edited books. He is the editor-in-chief of the Journal of NELTA and sub-editor of TESL-EJ.

Our Choutari editor, Jeevan Karki has spoken with Dr. Giri about the status of English in Nepal and the extent to be used, policies, and practice of English language teaching to avoid educational inequalities in multilingual Nepal. Moreover, the interview has also explored the concept of ‘authenticity’ in ELT, pros, and cons of adopting the foreign textbooks and other instructional materials including the ideas of localizing English language teaching, and the roles of English teachers and practitioners to balance the influence of English in our teaching-learning practices. Now, here is the exclusive interview for you.

 1) In Nepal, English has already received a considerable space in the school and university curriculum as a compulsory language subject and, more recently, as a medium of instruction starting from as early as grade one. So, to what extent do you think English is required in our education system? How do you see the status of English in Nepal in the current sociopolitical situation?  

There are two parts to this question: why and to extent, English is required in our (education) system, and its status in the current socio-political system. Both of these should be looked at in their proper contexts. I will address the second part first because I think that it is the prelude for the first part.

Status of English in the current socio-political situation: As the readers of ELT Choutari may be aware, the label of ‘English as a foreign language’ and ‘English as the most important international language’ in Nepal was unceremoniously attached to it in the 1950s and endorsed in successive educational plans by the then so-called experts of education. Although the reports and articles published in the 1960s have challenged this labelling as unrealistic and inappropriate, I am not going to delve into the argument here because the label, for me, is unimportant. What is important is how people saw the status of English then and how they see it now.

I might add here that English was the language in- and of-education prior to 1951, and 44 percent of the population who participated in the first-ever national survey on education was in favour of keeping English as a medium of instruction in the planned school education. That was about 70 years ago. Let’s briefly outline what has changed in Nepal in the last 70 years.

  • The literacy rate in Nepal has changed: In 1951-52, the literacy rate was around 4 percent and only 1 percent of school-age children attended school. According to some internet reports, the literacy rate in 2020 is around 90 percent and 76 percent of children are enrolled. The children who attended school since then would have some literacy in English. So, we can safely claim that the literacy rate in English has also changed/improved.
  • There has been a change in the people’s attitude towards the language: People no longer see it as a subject they must study to get a degree. They see it as an essential graduate attribute which prepares them for being a functional citizen in the globalized world today.
  • There has been a change in how people use English. It is a second or an alternate language for a significant number of people in the country. There are many educational and economic domains where English is used as the primary language. Similarly, in many social domains, it is an alternate language. People do not simply use it to gain social prestige, they use to express themselves better.
  • There has been a change in the source and means of knowledge. Knowledge bases and knowledge sources have become multidisciplinary and multiple norm-referenced. In the globalized context, knowledge is sourced through the internet and the primary means of accessing it is English, the language of the internet. The Nepali users of English do not worry about what variety of English they are taught or whether it is multi-norm referenced.
  • There has been a change in why people learn English today. The target of ELE in the past was to access knowledge from the print media. Now it is learned to access educational, employment, and better life opportunities globally. The purpose of learning English today is more realistic, practical, and locally appropriate.
  • There has been a change in how people learn English. The conventional methods are no longer the only methods of learning English. More and more students and teachers work together today to negotiate what they need/want to learn and how they want to learn it.

Given these changes, we need to re-assess the label which is unfairly attached to it for so long. In other words, its status in the Nepalese context must be reassessed in the light of the current practices and situated appropriately in the national life and educational curricula. Let’s now turn to the second part of the question, the question of its requirement.

The requirement of English in our (education) system: You may have noticed, I have put the word ‘education’ in the parenthesis, and that is on purpose. I think it is relevant first to see why English is required in the national system before we can understand its place in education because the education system of any country is subservient to its national system. The national system dictates what type of education the country should adopt and how it should deliver it.

The requirement of English in Nepal has already been determined. The Federal Government of Nepal, for example, has been using it as a second language. It has become the language of education at all levels. Many provincial governments have committed, they have even signed a treaty to use it as the third language under the three-language formula. So, the socio-politics of Nepal has dictated its requirement and space through its directives for how it should be used in national life including education. What it has not done is that it has not formulated a policy consistent with its directives.

Considering the varying situations and uses of English, Nepal needs to re-assess the roles English plays in the lives of its people. More importantly, it needs to re-assess its status because the Nepalese users of English are not being served well in the existing provisions. Therefore, a new national framework for its status, roles, uses, and space in education needs to be constructed which recognises the different types of English literacy situations. A new approach to its education, recognizing its multiple needs, therefore, should be developed in order to serve the Nepalese population better.

2) You mentioned that English is an alternate language in many social domains for a significant number of people in Nepal, hence its status should be reassessed. But if you see the figures of the Central Bureau of Statistics (national body of government), there is only 0.007% (2032) speakers of English as a mother tongue, while we do not have any statistics of the proficient speakers of English yet. So, isn’t it too early to claim it? Could you elaborate?

As you may be aware, a sizeable section of the Nepalese population is monolingual native speakers of Nepali. The only other language for many of them, particularly those who are educated, they use outside their home/ community is English. In many economic and education domains, such as tourism and (private and higher) education, it is an alternative language. Now some people use the term ESL (English as a second language) or even ELF (English as a lingua franca) to refer to the situation. For me, these terms connote differently. The term ESL, for example, focuses more on the learning/teaching aspect of the language rather than its use. Similarly, ELF is a means of inter-community or intra-national communication. By using the term, English as an alternative language (not to confuse it with English as an additional language), I refer to the myriads of situations in which people use English to participate and respond to when their native language does not serve them best.

In order to be effective, creative, and confident communicators in such situations, such users negotiate their English by appropriating proficiency in terms of accuracy and fluency, communicative skills, and language repertoire for different types of participants, and purpose of the interaction.

Now let’s turn to the data you have quoted in your question. First of all, it is old data reported on the 2011 (2012) census. Secondly, the reported population is the native speakers of English. And finally, the concept of English as an alternative language does not include native speakers of English but those who alternate their native language with English. And as I mentioned above, there is a sizeable section of the Nepalese population who already do that.

3) Historically, English has always been said as the language of elites and elites are believed to have appropriated English for their benefits. While English still functions as a second/third/fourth language for the majority of multilingual children in Nepal. So, there appears to class-based injustice and inequalities in English language teaching. In your views, what measures can be taken in the policies and practice of English language teaching to avoid such inequalities?

As is widely reported, English was imported and has been used in Nepal for ideological reasons, which helped the elites to establish a linguistic edge over the caste/class-based divisions in the Nepalese society. An example of the primacy of English is evident in the fact that English was made compulsory in education even before Nepali (the official/national language) was (Nepali was introduced as a compulsory subject in school only in 1951; whereas English had been compulsory and the medium of instruction since the beginning of school education in Nepal). In addition, English language education (ELE) initially restricted to the elites has also helped establish a form of neo-colonialism in Nepal. The language became a yardstick for employment and educational and occupational opportunities which were made available exclusively to the English-speaking elites. This has been the basis of social injustice and social inequalities. But things have changed now. With the new generation of English users, a new school of thought has emerged that sees English as neutral, democratic, and, more importantly, liberating.

This new line of thinking is based on three perspectives. First and foremost, it suggests that Nepal’s identity in the new context should be redefined with English as an official language in it. They believe that that English in Nepal is no longer an elite language, nor is it tied to any caste or class. Rather it has become everybody’s language and therefore is one of the local languages. The second perspective is that as English is used in more and more domains by more and more people, it should be given official status to remove the confusion and uncertainties surrounding it. Finally, the third perspective contends that it must be appropriately situated in the Nepalese language landscape on the principles of language ecology and linguistic co-existence. So, the answers to what measures can be taken in the policies and practices to avoid such inequalities are in the three perspectives presented above. However, I will reiterate them here again.

In order to address inequalities, the following measures can be taken:

  1. There is a great deal of confusion and uncertainties around what space Nepal should accord to English language education because the government lacks a clear and consistent ELE policy. In order to avoid these, the government should legislate it giving it an official status. Please note, it has already officialized it in its directives.
  2. Legislating it should give ELE an official regulating body something like ‘The National Institute of English Language Teaching’ whose job can be to regulate the distribution of human and materials resources and monitor an effective practice of ELE throughout Nepal.
  3. The official status will also place emphasis on addressing the issue of scarcity of trained and qualified English teachers in rural Nepal,
  4. It will ensure equitable access to quality ELT for all, especially the disadvantaged sections of the population, and finally
  5. An equitable and consistent policy will address the disproportionate distribution of ELT facilities and resources.

4) English, when promoted as the official language due to political imperative, has become the only dominant language in the educational landscape and administrative use limiting the growth and scope of other local languages for example in Rwanda and Cameroon. Research globally shows that students perform better in their local/mother tongues and the government of Nepal in its constitution and policy documents has also warranted and prioritized the use of local languages. So, why do you propose English to be the official language in multilingual Nepal which is not even the official language at the federal level in the USA ?

Legislating English, ambitious and problematic though it may sound, is not as problematic and chaotic as if we work out what to do, why to do it, and how to do it. First, we need to change our attitude towards the language and its legislation. People may see the problem in the very word of ‘officialising’. Let’s look at some of the ways the term ‘official language’ can be viewed. One view can see English – an official language as one of the languages that are accepted by the government of Nepal, which is taught in schools and colleges and is used as an alternative language in certain domains such as information and communication, official document, education, tourism, national and international companies, diplomacy and so on. Secondly, English could be given a special legal status, which could be used within the specified domains for communicational and transactional purposes. One other way of viewing it could be to legislate ‘official multilingualism’ where the government recognises multiple official languages with English among them. Under this system, all official languages are situated in the national space based on the principle of co-existence.

Furthermore, I am not suggesting that it should be legislated ‘overnight’. That could be disastrous. What we should commence doing is to prepare ourselves. We as a country should be prepared for this first. In order to be prepared, we need to initiate a conversation first with grassroots users or end-users of the language. We need to engineer the right attitude in the stakeholders. We need to develop the right strategies and adequate infrastructure. Above, all we need to situate English appropriately in the language landscape of Nepal. All of these processes are time-consuming processes, but if we want to do it in ten years’ time, we have to start the conversation now. Now whether or not it will become dominant will depend on how we situate it in our linguistic landscape. English is dominating our linguistic landscape now. As we have seen lately, it is replacing Nepali in several socio-economic domains. Not legislating will not stop its domination.

5) School-level English language curriculum of Nepal considers English as the most prominent means of international communication, language for global mobilities, and a means for academic success. What’s your perspective on this common belief?

The three aspects mentioned in the question sound great. It captures what may be called ‘the extrinsic view’ of English in Nepal. However, as it is evident, it fails to capture the local sentiments towards the language. It does not recognize the fact that English has already taken a significant position in the life of the Nepalese people. In other words, it lacks an intrinsic perspective on English.

6) In a country like Nepal, there is a tendency to adopt textbooks and other instructional materials developed elsewhere, mainly in the Western countries, and there is a lack of local reflections in such materials. What are the positives and negatives of this practice? 

Using commercially marketed textbooks and instructional materials is a double-edged sword. By this, I mean that it has some pros as well as some cons. In my personal opinion, they do more harm than good. Let me explain this further. First of all, I will take up the pros. The marketed materials, especially those published by the western presses, are prepared by a highly trained team of experts and go through rigorous processes of reviews. In other words, the texts and exercises have been tried and tested on English language principles and organised and paced appropriately for a particular age-group of students. Therefore, the quality of such text materials and exercises can be assured. Such textbooks are visually attractive in that they contain colourful pictures, drawings, and charts. In addition, the accompanying workbooks, CDs, audios, and videos are of high quality. They work as a source of an appropriate model and input especially for those teachers who have learned English as a foreign language themselves. Such textbooks often come with comprehensively prepared teachers’ books (teachers’ manuals) which provides step-by-step guidance and support to teachers.

Now I look into the cons.

Such textbooks are prepared for a particular group of children, for a particular set of aims, on a particular approach, and with a particular context in mind. If such textbooks are appropriate for a particular group of children, there is no certainty that they will work for the children in Nepal. The Nepali learners of English may have a different route or pace of learning English. Their needs, objectives, and therefore, their interest in learning English are likely to be different. Such textbooks and instructional materials are prepared on the publishers’ prescribed approaches and their chosen context. These approaches and contexts are usually different from those of the approaches and contexts adapted in Nepal. Most important of all, they may be culturally insensitive. In other words, such materials are not culturally authentic. So, they do not help achieve the aims with which teaching English in Nepal. On the other hand, if the materials do not match the students’ pace and level, they can create demotivation or frustrations in them.

7) In the case of the Nepali English language teaching context, how do you define “authenticity” in both preparing and delivering lessons? What could be some ways to incorporate such authenticity in classrooms?

The term ‘authenticity’ is often misunderstood and misinterpreted. In the Nepali English language teaching context, authenticity in language lessons may be defined as lessons that are prepared and delivered in order to meet the learning targets of the students in the social contexts they learn English in and to fulfil their prospective needs. Now, this definition may sound a bit simplistic, but I tend to think that it is not. I will explain it with the help of three expressions, i.e., the authenticity of ELT practices should be passed on three principles: feed-up, feed on, and feedforward. Firstly, the lessons teachers prepare and deliver should be based on appropriate learning principles and designed to meet the current targets of the learners. The teachers and learners both need to understand what they are doing during the lessons, what materials they are going to use, why they are going to use such materials, and in what ways they are going to help achieve their learning goals. In other words, they should feed up in unpacking the learning targets and the curricular elements associated with them. Secondly, the materials and methods need to be grounded in the reality of learner needs and contexts. In other words, the preparation and delivery of lessons should be fed on the reality of the contexts in which the students learn and use English. For example, if the lesson is about ‘giving and receiving telephone messages’, the materials teachers use should be ‘actual’ conversations grounded in actual contexts in which students are likely to give and receive messages, e.g., giving and receiving messages about assignments, requesting and receiving messages about examinations, giving and receiving personal details at a bank, and so on. Similarly, if the lesson is about ‘pollution’, the materials used should be the ones that are written about their own cities published in the local newspapers or magazines, or broadcast on local radio or telecast on local TVs. Finally, the lessons should be designed in such a way that the language elements that they learn should feedforward to their future needs and activities on the related topic. Authentic materials, thus, have intrinsic educational value. It keeps them informed about what is happening in the context they live in.

8) Could you please also share your ideas about localizing English language teaching, also in terms of linguistically and culturally responsive teaching? 

In Nepal, we have had no engaged discussions or conversations on the issue of how English language teaching can be localised despite the fact that the teaching and learning of English are now increasingly intricately intertwined with a wide variety of local cultures, including regional and national cultures. I am aware that some institutions/universities of Nepal, particularly those in the west, are planning to develop locally appropriated text materials for their localised teaching practices.

For linguistically and culturally responsive teaching, the text materials, and their teaching practices need to include four cultural dimensions: (1) the aesthetic dimension (local art and literature); (2) the sociological dimension (local customs and practices); (3) the semantic dimension, the manner in which a culture’s conceptual system is embodied in the language (local English); and (4) the pragmatic dimension, which pertains to linguistic and paralinguistic rules and skills that guide speakers to appropriate use of rhetorical styles for communication purposes (local use).

9) What should be the role of English teachers and practitioners to minimize the hegemonic influence of English in our teaching-learning practices?

In some ways, this question is related to the previous question. The hegemony of English is exercised through practicing Anglocentric norms, models, and teaching materials. This gives the learner the feeling that they have to speak/use the language as the native speakers do, and they are learning a language that does not belong to them. They do not identify themselves with it. English teachers can play a significant role in minimizing this hegemonic influence. They can change the lens through which our students look at English. They can, for example, develop in them a critical view of English, its ownership, its plurality, and complexity. In other words, they can raise students’ awareness of world Englishes, by detaching English from its Anglocentric linguistic and cultural model and methods, and then by localizing it considering the way(s) in which it is used and experienced locally. In other words, English teachers can shift the focus from norm, teaching methods, and materials of the Centre (Anglocentric) to teaching strategies, contexts, knowledge, and culture of the Periphery (Local) for the development of ELT curricula, materials, and methodology.


Note: Now the floor is open for you. If you have any concerns or comments on the interview, drop them down in the box below. Your constructive feedback and questions are always welcome. Thank you!

Cite as: Giri, RA (2020). English is one of the local languages in Nepal. http://eltchoutari.com/2020/10/english-is-one-of-the-local-languages-in-nepal-dr-giri/

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