So What, If Not Mother Tongue?

Karna Rana

Karna Rana

“Probably I’m the only person here who speaks one language. I wish I could speak more languages.” – An English native.

Why language matters in our daily life becomes a hot chilli at teatime, at lunch break, on a journey and at other round tables. One day on a fifteen-minute teatime break, one of my workplace colleagues who speaks only English said, “Probably I’m the only person here who speaks one language. I wish I could speak more languages.” His statement caused laughter among the four of us who used to sit at the table, and they were from different countries. All of us except he could speak at least two languages. There were other colleagues from China, Taiwan, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Korea, Samoa, Fiji, Somalia, Ethiopia, Pakistan, Jordan, and some other countries. I was among them from Nepal. He was the only English native in the group of about fifty-five people excluding the supervisor. Those who were from different countries could speak their mother tongue as well as English. Most of them had colleagues from their own countries and majority of them were females. The environment obviously allowed them to speak in their own  languages. There were four of us (only males) not having colleagues from our countries. The English native who used to sit beside me could only understand English. When others were talking in their own languages, he used to look at their face and smile, which was unusual for English native living in the English country.

It is an example to understand the scope of multiple languages. The place of language as a situation has a connection with several social and cultural aspects. Whether the right to language matters or not, the place where someone is, has a value of speech. The smile of the English native would not often deliver his thoughts when other language speakers used to communicate in their own languages. The situation requires a link language (lingua franca) for verbal communication between the different language speakers. It is still not sure whether the link language can fully transmit their understandings, feelings and meanings. It often happens that two different language speakers using a link language get confused and misunderstand each other. Moreover, the link language may not transmit the feelings of the speakers. When we talk about feelings, it is one of the main characteristics that makes us distinctive, i.e. human being among the creatures in the world. The human feeling is associated with the place where he or she is born and grown up. Thus, beyond than the right to language, there are other human-related important aspects that need to be understood before imposing any other language on the speakers.

“It often happens that two different language speakers using a link language get confused and misunderstand each other. Moreover, the link language may not transmit the feelings of the speakers.”


It may be worthy to write about a seminar on e-Learning and language development that I recently attended in New Zealand. Although the seminar was intended to focus on the research related to digital technology and language development of preschool children, the atmosphere gradually emphasised the socio-cultural aspects of language. A professor from Samoa used Taro (Colocassia in English and Pidaloo in Nepali) farming as a metaphor to develop language in children. His childhood story of planting baby colocassia in a wide land in the right season and harvesting thousands of tonnes of colocassia reflected that the children are the seeds of language which grow in a wide range. When he focused on the right season to plant, it indicated the age of children when they start their social life and acquire language. His words ‘harvest tonnes of colocassia’ represented the growth and development of language. His metaphor was sufficient for us to understand how we can save several indigenous languages in Nepal. In the seminar, the further interaction emphasised that the children’s cognitive development depend on their culture. Another professor remarked that the children conceptualise in their own language other than English in the classroom. She added that the children think in their language and communicate. She suggested that it is necessary to promote the children’s mother tongue from personal, community and national levels. For knowledge, New Zealand has a number of immigrants from different countries who have their languages.

I recently visited Linwood College ( a secondary school with year 13) in Christchurch, New Zealand. It was my second visit to the school to observe the classrooms with a group of Teaching Quality Improvement (TQI) project trainees from Bangladesh. In the interaction with the principal,  head of English Language Learning and other three teachers, Navjot, the head of English  Language Learning, briefly explained about the school environment and classrooms. She stated that the school had students from 21 countries including Nepal. She further explained that the children from different countries and socio-cultural backgrounds speak their languages. However, they have to speak the next language ‘English’ and write in English. She specifically focused on their two different varieties of English, that is, heard language and eye language. She added that the children from different language backgrounds in her school also learned English in their communities or countries. However, they faced difficulties to understand native English at the initial stage. She gave an example that the immigrant children have eye language as they learned English by reading books in their countries. She said that the children learn English from the books, but they think in their mother tongue and try to express in English. It was an example for me to understand why second language learning and speaking becomes so complicated. She also mentioned that her school encourages the immigrant children to use their language. She said, “I encourage them to speak their language and strengthen their language. Use the language as much as they can.”

When I stand on the socio-cultural ground of Nepal, I see a number of indigenous communities, their cultures and different languages. The census of 2011 recorded 125 languages excluding dialects in Nepal. We know that Nepali is the primary language in school education where English is the next language in the community schools. However, the private schools, as well as some community schools, have imposed the English language as a medium of learning and instruction. It is wise not to criticise against the schools’ English language policy without in-depth study in this field in the country. However, it requires the government authority to consider mother tongue as a language of thought and expression, as well as the right to the mother tongue. It is the only way to save the culture, community and the national identity.

Does the above example suggest the education planners in Nepal consider school teaching in those dominated languages in Nepal?

Mr. Rana is a PhD Candidate in School of Teacher Education College of Education, Health and Human Development University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand. 

He can be reached at karna.maskirana@pg.canterbury.ac.nz