Multilingualism in/and Nepalese Education

Shailaja Jha

We all know that Nepal is an extremely multilingual society. But what is the status of multilingualism in educational context of Nepal? In this essay, I describe multilingualism and the spread of English in Nepal. I also discuss multilingualism as a means for creating social harmony as well as enhancing teaching and learning in general. I conclude by highlighting the role of teachers in promoting multilingualism.

Most of the Nepalese people are multilinguals, and many people don’t even have a clear order of first and second languages. For example, my home language is Maithili but, interestingly enough, I cannot speak it very well. Instead, I have learned Newari in addition to the mainstream language Nepali. This means that we are such a multilingual society that some of us even get confused as to which language is our “home” or “heritage” language.  In fact, most of the world’s population speaks more than one language but most of the population in western cultures is monolingual in one of the “major” languages in spite of being exposed to other languages mainly in the school context. So, multilingualism is the norm rather than exception of human societies, except that educational and political institutions try to create artificial situations where one or a few languages are given systematic privilege without realizing that suppressing language diversity is counterproductive as well as insensitive.

“There are almost no territories [in the world] in which only one languages is used by the citizenry” (Cenoz & Genesee 1998). In South Africa eleven languages are given a constitutional recognition as official ones; in India, this number is twenty-two! When people are left to their own linguistic devices, especially in the urban environments which are increasingly the norm of life in this country, their speech behavior is characterized by fluidity, interconnection, multi component code switching and easy transcendence of notional linguistic boundaries. This is true particularly of informal domains.

Also, if we look at the issue of multilingualism in societies like Nepal, South Africa, and India, we will see that there is no single and simple definition of multilingualism. Multilingualism can be rigidly defined as being native-like in two or more languages, but it can also be loosely defined as being less than native-like but still able to communicate in two or more languages. Multilingual speakers have acquired and maintained at least one language during childhood, the so-called first language (L1). First languages (sometimes also referred to as mother tongue) are acquired without formal education, by mechanisms heavily disputed. Children acquiring two first languages since birth are called simultaneous bilinguals. Even in the case of simultaneous bilinguals one language usually dominates over the other. This kind of bilingualism is most likely to occur when a child is raised by bilingual parents in a predominantly monolingual environment. It can also occur when the parents are monolingual but have raised their child or children in two different countries.

Many people believe that Nepali language has always been the majority language of Nepal; in reality, Nepali was called Khaskura spoken by a group of people that was probably no larger than other groups like Magar, Tamang, Sherpa, or Limbu today. Nepali (Khaskura) evolved from the language spoken by a group that became politically powerful in the last two centuries, and in fact it also spread far and wide into Bhutan, India and Myanmar. Nepali language is also the official language of the state of Sikkim in India. At present, almost half of the total population of Nepal speaks Nepali; the other half of the population speaks almost a hundred different languages. If you think about it, Nepal is not only home to more language families than all of Europe combined, but also has more distinct and individual languages in one country than the whole of the European community (Yadava, 2003). However, there is the lack of study and discussion of endangered minority languages and the possible reasons of their status of being endangered for the integrated development of the country. Negligence of Government on Language policy towards poor, rural ethno-linguistic communities, and overemphasis on one language policy considering Nepali as the official language and as the medium of creating national identity and homogenization also can be pointed out major influential reasons for disregarding minority ethnic and indigenous languages. The state policy of the government takes endangerment and extinction of minority language as the matter of mere ‘language shift’ whereas the members from the ethnic and indigenous community might take it seriously as the matter of as Skutnabb-Kangas (2000) states as ‘linguistic genocide’. Some linguists diplomatically point towards political and ideological perspective in regard to the matter of endangerment, extinction of minority languages.

The newest and most important dynamics in Nepali multilingualism is the entry of English as a medium of education and a language of business, diplomacy, and cross-cultural communication. On the one hand, everyone knows the benefits of multilingualism: they would like to teach their children not only English but also other languages. But on the other hand, it is difficult for the next generation to develop the same level of language proficiency for academic and professional communication, for higher learning and sharing of complex ideas if they only use their local languages for basic communication and use English only for educational, professional, and intellectual purposes.

Educators understand that multilingualism helps to facilitate access to curriculum and to learning in school. It also improves communication between different linguistic groups. Multilingualism provides children with ability to share in a wide range of intercultural experiences such as literature, entertainment, religion, and other interests. Children can become fluent in more than one language and for many people throughout the world multilingualism is very common. The level of fluency depends on factors such as the language programme children follow in school and the extent of parental support. The ability to speak the mother tongue as well as the national language and an international language creates a much wider range of life choices for individuals but can also achieve national unity. There is no scientific evidence that learning more than one language is intellectually damaging. Children who have a good understanding of how different languages function are more likely to have good analytical skills and are often more effective communicators.  Therefore, there is no doubt that multilingualism is a positive social and personal resource.

As teachers of language and literacy, we also know that there is no evidence to show that multilingual societies are more disadvantages than monolingual countries. Social disadvantage is caused by factors other than language. It is important educationally that children learn in their mother tongues in the early years of schooling. Our Government also make policy regarding this.

However, the forces of globalization, prevailing myths about the power of English (as if it is a magical potion that will create jobs and opportunities and intellectual progress on its own) make it very difficult for societies to develop educational systems based on their understanding of multilingualism. Due to the globalization of English, parents and teachers are attracted towards giving education to the students in English medium right from the very beginning. They wrongly believe that students will be able to better succeed in the competitive world if they have English proficiency. In reality, it is knowledge and skills that students most need. A lot of research regarding multilingualism shows that supporting children’s first language will enhance the acquisition of the second and third language. Similarly, there is a link between multilingualism and creativity. Multilingualism broadens access to information and offers alternative ways of organizing thoughts. But unfortunately, these realities get lost in the maze of myths about the magic of English.

Just consider the work of a businessperson; most business people need to travel around the world, communicate with people who speak different languages. It is very clear that if your students can speak multiple languages they will be much better business people who can not only sell better but will also create and maintain goodwill with a lot more people in the future. Or consider your students who may become diplomats, administrators and managers of multinational corporations or the United Nations, writers and journalists. There is no profession that I can think of where our students will not do better if they are multilingual. But remember, it will not be enough for them to “know” how to conduct basic communication in all the other languages except English. Only if we allow, encourage, and facilitate the use of multiple languages at higher levels of education can our students be efficient multilinguals in their future careers.

Many educators wrongly believe that promoting multilingualism is costly, impractical, or difficult. The reality is that such assumptions are simply wrong. Promoting multilingualism need not cost anything: you can just encourage your students to use and develop different languages by asking them to express their ideas in different languages in the classroom (maybe as long as everyone understands). Similarly, there is nothing impractical about equally respecting and promoting different languages that your students speak; instead, the opposite should be seen as unprofessional, unethical, and shameful for educated people and educators. Finally, multilingualism is becoming a profitable business in many areas. Think about a student who is able to translate documents. Realizing the importance of multilingualism, nowadays many software companies are developing multilingual interfaces, multilingual applications for translation, multilingual communicative mechanisms, etc.

Yet another problem with educators is that they believe that they are not qualified to teach or promote multilingualism. While it may be true that you are not “qualified” to teach different languages, there is no reason why you should not promote and encourage multiple languages among your students. And, there is absolutely no reason why you should suppress students’ languages. Just think about it: you have no right to do that in the first place.

Yes, politicians try to divide the society along linguistic lines. But as educators we can help our students speak the languages of different ethnic groups and thereby help them become cross-cultural citizens and promoters of cultural harmony. For this we need to realize that we are very rich in culture and its aspects, we need to utilize our culture to create peace and harmony among the people of Nepal not for fighting with each other in the name of culture and language.

As teachers of language in a rich multilingual country, it is our duty to facilitate multicultural education among our students. Trust me, if we do so we will not betray our students’ need to learn more English. If our students continue to learn new ideas, if they grow up as citizens of the world who understand and respect different cultures and their languages, in the long run, their English will be better.  We need to prepare students for the real world and the real world is multicultural and multilingual. At the very least, we need to draw on students’ linguistic and cultural experiences and knowledge, allow them to utilize those resources, and never try to suppress them—whether intentionally or not. Teacher in multicultural classrooms should be open to their students and put forth the effort needed to know their students inside or outside the classroom. Evaluating cultural diversity, teachers should build multicultural programs, show appreciation of differences, avoid stereotypes, acknowledge differences in children and discover the diversity within the classroom. If we think about it, respect and promotion of multilingualism could be the basis for a new kind of thinking among the future leaders and citizens of this country—different from the monolingual presumptions that lie at the heart of violence, protest, strike, kidnap, rape, robbery and mass brutality in our time.


Crystal, D. (2003). Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics. Blackwell publishing.

The Interim Constitution of Nepal. (2007). Part 3, Article 17)

Phayak, P. (2009). MA in Teaching of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Institute of Education, University of London.

Yadav ,Y.P. (2007). Linguistic Diversity in Nepal Perspective on language policy, Kathmandu, Nepal.

Kansakar, T. R.  (1996). Multilingualism. Nepal, Kathmandu.

Subedi, D.P (2010).  Multi cultural classroom issues in the Nepalese context, Journal of Education and Research Nepal, Kathmandu.

Koirala B.N. (2010). Opportunities for multi lingual Education in Nepal,  Journal of Education and Research, Nepal, Kathmandu.

10 thoughts on “Multilingualism in/and Nepalese Education

  1. I found the writer more emotional and assertive. I think that academia’s duty is to explore the reality prevalent in the society and show merits and demerits. Being assertive is the dyty of politician.

  2. @Surendra, Really? I didn’t think this article was “emotional” at all. I read it, liked it, and worked with the author to help her focus and condense it, but I would never consider this article emotional 🙂 What did you find emotional?

  3. Wow what a true coverage . I know Nepali , English,newari, Hindi, maithili wow i don’t think multi language teaching is costly i really appreciate this article . I have read one comment being assertive is the job of politicians hahaha may be but does not apply here .good job sailaja.

  4. A wonderful article!
    Understanding the value of multilingualism will not only be helpful for students, but to the overall society, including the politicians.

    There exists a paranoid suspicion, totally unfounded, uninformed, to the point of xenophobia among those Nepalis that grow up only speaking the Khas Kura. When the state pushed the one language policy, and the Khas kura was thrust upon as ‘Nepali’ language, all the other languages of Nepal suddenly became less Nepali or even un-Nepali!

    Wholeheartedly embracing the multilingualism of our country can only help to better appreciate the cultural diversity we have, create an atmosphere of trust among ethnic groups and in a true sense unite all the Nepalis from east to west and north to south.

    I would like to read more content on multilingualism and its benefits on this forum in future.

  5. Sailaja ji! Well designed and well written. Multi( culture/ ethnicity) has become a key word among language teachers now a days. Your essay on this topic is praiseworthy. Now a days, we can not name ourselves as an English language teacher but just a language teacher . In this post modern world we do not expect to get anything pure in it’s form. Overlapping has become one of the key elements of anything we see , eat, read, and write and many more. A teacher even stands in an overlapped ground.

    Your essay has triggered inside me and opened the door of possibilities in any walks of life. Multi( culture/ ethnicity) has become the key to work places and professions.
    I do not regard your essay emotional. It is a practical one.
    Thank you very much for meaningful essay.

  6. @ Sailaja jee, I really like the big topic that you have put forwards. In such grand topic, your focus got lost somewhere.
    Is your focus on pedagogy or policy making or both? Your topic couldn’t get proper supporting details. Anyway, I don’t mean to put you down, however, it is good attempt. I am sorry for compelling all other friends to comment over my comments.

  7. @ Surendra jee: The title of my writeup primarily implies pedagogy,
    however, the kind of pedagogy we follow or that we have been following is invariably linked with the policies that we have. So, it may not do justice on the topic to only talk around pedagogy while remaining silent about the elephant in the room! I was in a way, trying to address both, pedagogy as well as policy in a broad take.
    I must thank you for going through my text and commenting upon it.
    Would also like to thank the rest of the commentators for contributing to a lively conversation on the topic.

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