English in Nepal: From colonial legacy to professionalism

Tikaram Poudel
Tikaram Poudel

Nepal has never been a colony of another country, so its people here have not been imposed English in any way, as the case was in neighboring India during the British rule. However, English has strong influence on Nepalese elites (Kerr, 1999) ever since the British had contact with Nepalese people in the second half of the 18th century. This post examines the texts relevant to influence of English on Nepalese society within the theoretical framework of POWER theory described by Guha (1997). It intends to provide a fresh perspective for looking at the socio-educational issues of Nepal in relation to English language in education.

Power theory

Guha (1997, p. 20) argues that power is a relational notion. For power to work in a society, there needs to be a dominant group and a subordinate one. The dominant group can exercise its power either by coercion or by persuasion. The subordinate group either resists or collaborates with the dominant group. If the sub-ordinate group resists, it takes the power or gets isolated. If it collaborates, it gets integrated with the dominant group.

In the case of English, power exercises dominance through persuasion and it does so in a variety of ways, such as by developing a favorable consciousness, legitimizing as right and just, and creating dominance through consent.

English in Nepal

In Nepal, the influence of English can be seen as having three historical eras: Era of colonial influence from 1767 -1850, Era of English education expansion from 1851-1990, and Era of English professionalism from 1990 to present. We can observe the different kinds of power that the English language has exerted in Nepal by analyzing its roles in different historical conditions, focusing on what the rulers tried to achieve by adopting and using English in education and society.

The era of colonial influence

English first entered into Nepal through the contact (both conflict and alliances) with the British people who colonized India. Nepal’s rulers quickly understood that they could educate their own children to create a special privilege and perhaps use the language to ensure their continued rule into the distant future. When Prithvi Narayan Shah, the king of Gorkha, attacked the Valley of Kathmandu in 1767, King Jaya Prakash Malla of Kathmandu asked the East India Company to support him to resist the aggression of Prithvi Narayan Saha. Responding to Jaya Prakash Malla, Captain Kinloch with a British troop (Levi, 1952) arrived in Kathmandu. That was the first contact of English-speaking people with Nepalese elites. When Nepalese army was defeated in Tibet in 1792, the Nepali king appealed the British in India to mediate with Chinese. Then, Kirkpatrick arrived in Kathmandu as special British envoy to Nepal (Bell 2014).Kirkpatrick’s arrival and his mediation started influencing Nepali politics. The East India Company signed a treaty with Nepali king Rana Bahadur Shah in 1801. This treaty allowed the British to have a permanent residence in Kathmandu. In 1802, Captain Knox took the office as a first British resident in Kathmandu (Bell 2014). The establishment of British residence in Kathmandu influenced the rulers of Kathmandu. The British residence also opened the way to western scholars, particularly British, to study the people of Nepal, which was not known to the west before.Some remarkable studies on this subject are Kirkpatrick(1811), Hodgson (1880) and Hamilton(1891).

After the Kot Massacre in 1846, Janga Bahadur Rana seized the power and became Prime-minister subjugating the power of king. Rana understood the power of British and maintained cordial relations with the southern power. He signed an agreement with the British in India. After the agreement, Nepali youths were recruited in British army to fight for the British Empire. He supplied soldiers to British Empire. These youths had formal education in English for eight years (Kerr 1999).In return he got many medals and a trip to London. (Levi, 1952). Back to Nepal, Rana established a school to educate the children of Ranas in English in 1853/54 (L.Stiller, 1993).He brought teachers both from England and Bengal. Hence, the first school of Nepal was an English medium school (Levi, 1952).The Ranas established school to impart western system of education in English because they felt access to English education would secure their elite position by providing their offspring with access to knowledge of English language and Western ways (Vir, 1988).They believed they could maintain the status quo and strengthen their own power base (Vir, 1988) in the future.

The era of English education expansion

When the Nepalese soldiers in British Army returned home, they were exposed to the life outside their national borders. This exposure made them aware of the power of western education, inspiring them to adopt it for their own families. Vir (1988) argues three factors contributed to this expansion. 1. After the twenty years service in the British Army, many of these soldiers tutored the youths of their villages. 2. The British Residents in Kathmandu Valley influenced the rulers and elite groups in Nepal. 3. The establishment of Durbar School in 1853/4 was a shift to modern system of education from traditional one. This school with its British and Indian teachers had impacts on the elite class of Nepal. Consequently, this class began to question the traditional values of society and began to accept western way of thoughts.

Gradually, this class constituted a power structure of Nepalese society and became the model for subsequent generations. After the Revolution of 1951, when Nepal had to modernize and formalize its education system, the planners of Nepalese governments based their recommendations on this model (Wood, 1977, p. 155).The Ranas preferred English education for their children because it enabled them to maintain their superiority. However, Chandra Shamsher modified the educational system as the British in India made basic education mandatory for the recruitment in British army 1912.In 1918, Tri-Chandra College was established to keep Nepali youth in the country and control exposure to superior Western ideas and technology (Vir, 1988). In this sense the establishment of Tri-Chandra College was to resist the western influence (Kerr, 1999).Tri-Chandra college was affiliated to Patna University, India

Consequently, Nepalese higher education was heavily influenced by Indian system of British India because the syllabus was directly borrowed from India and same assessment system was implemented.

As in course of time, higher education was expanded, more teachers educated in Indian universities were hired. This situation created a kind of feeling among the people that to be educated means to be fluent in English, the knowledge of vernacular languages was considered inferior to English and English was taken as a superior formal school education (Wood, 1977). This craze for English led to the popularity of English medium schools run by private sectors. This preference to English was because of the pro-British sentiment in post Rana-era (Shrestha 1993 as cited in Kerr 1998). However, Bista (1991) argues English was preferred because competence in English was seen as the passport to administrative positions in government. Pro-British sentiment was so strong that the removal of English from school curriculum (The All-round National Education Committee 1961-62) was criticized. By the early 1960s, English was able to influence the common middle class, beyond the elite as earlier (Wood, 1977).

All the factors mentioned by Crystal (1997) were at work for the hegemonic supremacy of English in Nepalese society. Crystal’s (1997) factors arehistorical tradition, political expediency, and the desire for commercial, cultural or technological contact when the public schools, which were modeled on the basis of schools in British India, did not meet the growing demand of English education. Kerr (1998) argues the model of a single system of vernacular schools did not meet the desired standard and quality of education of Nepali elite and as a result a separate system of private English medium schools developed. The massive proliferation of English through private English medium schools is the evidence of the strength of British influence in Nepal between1950 and 1970.

When Tribhuvan University was established in 1959, the notice of Nepal Gazette said, Nepali would replace English by 1974 as the medium of instruction in University (Malla, 1977).However, the importance of English in higher education is increasing and Nepali or any other languages of Nepal do not seem to dislodge English from Nepali academia.

The era of English professionalism

There are several factors that led to English professionalism. Malla (1977) mentions the following factors led to English professionalism in Nepal: the acquisition and transmission of scientific and technological knowledge, international communication, the acquisition of ideas and values necessary for accelerating the modernization process, reference language, library language and regional lingua franca. The Central Department of English (CDE) at Tribhuvan University played an important role for English professionalism. Policies of CDE, to a great extent, determines English professionalism in Nepal even today which are, in many respects, influenced by the experts e.g., the visit of Allan Davies in 1969 and Hugh D. Purcell in 1971. In most of the cases, these experts were made available by British Council and American Embassy. Hence, their service was in line with the ideology of these organizations. The course of English professionalism is also determined by the scholars who studied in the US or the UK under different scholarships. More recently, professional organizations like Nepal English Language Teachers Association (NELTA) and Linguistic Society of Nepal (LSN) have created similarly far-reaching influences on the English professionalism in Nepal.


In the history of English in Nepal, in the early stage, English was the source of power for the rulers. The Nepali elites collaborated with the British to gain power, and English was more symbolic than a real vehicle of power. In course of time, as the elite became powerful, it also adopted the western ideology through western education, hoping to maintain its power structure. In the next stage, the expansion of English education alongside technological advancement and globalization created a class, which could use English and western education in order to compete with the superiority of the elites. In fact, this new class eventually overthrew the earlier elites and continued to build on the power of English. So, the language and education of the west have been relatively politically neutral as far as direct outside influence are concerned. External forces have certainly played a role but the power of English—especially in more modern times—lies largely in the internal power structure that uses it for creating and advancing its advantages. As a whole, the role of English in Nepalese society is certainly in line with the universal hegemonic supremacy of English identified by Crystal (1997): historical tradition, political expediency, and the desire for commercial, cultural or technological contact. But the biggest role is played by those who can use English to support their political domination, to create a better education for themselves, and to take cream out of professional opportunities.

The author: Dr. Poudel is an assistant professor at school of education, Kathmandu University Nepal. (trpoudels@yahoo.com)


Bista, D. B. (1991). Fatalism amd development: Nepal’s struggle for modernization. Hydrabad: Orient Longman.

Crystal, D. (1997). English as a global langauge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Guha, R. (1997). Dominance without hegemony: History and power in colonial India. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Hamilton, F. B. (1891). An account of the kingdom of Nepal.

Hodgson, B. H. (1880). Miscellaneous essays relating to Indian subjects. London: Truebner & Co.

Kerr, R. (1999). Planning and Practice: Factors impacting on the development of initial education in Nepal, with special reference to English language teaching, 1950-1995. Doctoral dissertation, Victoria University of Technology, Melbourne.

Kirkpatrick, W. (1811). Account of the kingdom of Nepal. London: William Miller.

L.Stiller. (1993). Nepal: Growth of a Nation. Kathmandu: Human Resource Development (HRD) Research Center.

Levi, W. (1952, December 17). Government and politics in Nepal: I. Far Eastern Survey , 185-191.

Malla, K. P. (1977). English language teaching Tribhuvan University. Vasudha, 16 (1).

Vir, D. (1988). Education and polity in Nepal: An Asian experiment. New Delhi: Northern Book Center.

Wood, H. B. (1977). Agents of education and development in Nepal. In C. J. Calhoun, & F. A. Ianni (Eds.), The anthropological study of education. London: Walter de Gruyter.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *