In the 90s and early 2000s, it was compulsory to speak in English at St Mary’s. Our teachers constantly reminded us to, often pulling us out of assembly lines to tell us we must obey the rule. We were punished and sometimes even fined if we were found talking in Nepali. School captains would monitor us during the lunch breaks, reporting anyone who slipped up. We had to constantly force ourselves to talk in English; it didn’t come naturally. We would invariably switch to Nepali or add ‘ing’ to Nepali words when we didn’t know how to say something or wanted to be rebellious and hip.
Good English meant you were a good student. It was a determinant and an assurance of sorts of a successful life. So private education was largely focused on English and the burgeoning of English medium schools in the 90s further fostered this trend. Fast forward over two decades later, the situation is the same except children today don’t have to be coerced to speak in English. They do so because they want to. Many don’t at all speak in Nepali or other native languages like Newari. Ask them something in Nepali and they will invariably respond in English. Access to the internet—games, cartoons, and other videos—means children pick up English words early on.
Anita Portel Gajmer, a kindergarten teacher for 13 years, says Peppa Pig, a British animated series, is popular among children, and it shows in their pronunciation. Children these days, she says, are exposed to a lot of English content, but there aren’t many child-friendly Nepali or other local language videos online. They are, thus, already speaking in English by the time they go to school. Schools, in turn, encourage and applaud their tendency to speak in English. “Our education system is English-centric. All the subjects like math, science, history and geography are in English,” she says. There is also an innate bias for the language. Most parents, she confesses, are proud that their children speak in English and not their native tongue.
Nepalis’ fascination with English sweeps other languages to the sidelines. According to the 2022 census, 123 languages are spoken in the country. Quite a few parents confessed to speaking with their children exclusively in English. They feared not doing so would make their children’s English rusty or they would get confused with different sounds and words. Bhandra Sharma, senior journalist who writes for The New York Times, says he went to a government school and learnt English late in life. He faced a lot of challenges because of it. He doesn’t want his children to go through that. A sound knowledge of English, he says, is essential to compete internationally. His daughter, Bihanee, speaks both Nepali and English though she confesses she’s more comfortable in English.
But studies show that bilingual children have ‘cognitive flexibility’. When a bilingual child attempts to communicate, the languages in the brain compete to be activated and chosen, making the brain sharper. A 2004 study by psychologists Ellen Bialystok and Michelle Martin-Rhee found that bilingual children were better at dividing objects by shape and color. Monolingual subjects had trouble when the second characteristic (sorting by shape) was added. The study concluded that being bilingual was better for the brain’s command center. You were more likely to be mentally sharper if you spoke two or more languages.
Namthak Rongong, a nine-year-old boy who studies at a private school in Lalitpur, also prefers to speak in English. His Nepali isn’t very good, admits his mother, Kabita Rongong. “It was only during the Covid-19 lockdowns that he started speaking in Nepali as my husband and I speak in Nepali at home. He also picked up a few Newari words as I speak Newari too,” says Kabita. But Namthak still mostly answers in English even when someone speaks to him in Nepali. He also has an accent that he claims to have picked up from his friends at school. His mother, however, wants him to be fluent in English as well as other languages, be it Nepali, Newari, or Japanese. In fact, as the founders of Namthak’s school are Korean, some parents have actually put in a request for Korean classes for their children.
Children speaking exclusively in English also leads to communication problems in the family as the older generation might not be fluent in it, says psychologist Minakshi Rana. She has seen many families where the bonding between children and their grandparents has been affected by their mutual incomprehension. The communication barrier makes children aloof and unempathetic.
Rana says there are a few reasons Nepalis seem to prefer English to our own local languages. One, it stems from the parents’ inferiority complex: Their children must speak in English to appear proper and posh. Children, they believe, have better self-esteem when they can converse in English. “In many cases, it also has a lot to do with our inability or unwillingness to accept our diverse cultures. Western culture is considered superior and their language better,” says Rana.
Sanorip Rai, who has been working at Ekta Books in Jawalakhel, Lalitpur, attests to that. She says she regularly hears parents talk to their children in English despite not being fluent in it themselves. The government recently added social science in Nepal to the school curriculum. Parents frequently tell her how difficult it has been for their children who, at most, have a very basic understanding of Nepali. But there is a glint of pride underlying their complaints and that is worrisome, says Rai, whose 19-year-old son speaks fluent Nepali. She fears he could be the last generation of high-school graduates who can actually write and speak proper Nepali—or any of our other national dialects for that matter.
Portel says soon it will be difficult for even primary school teachers to understand what children are saying because of the different accents and that will hamper their learning. She adds education is mostly becoming about how good your English is. It’s creating a class divide—if your child speaks in English, it means s/he goes to a good (read: expensive) school. “It’s becoming a reflection of your social/financial status,” she says.
Learning and speaking English isn’t a bad thing. After all, it’s the universal language. But our approach to this has been all wrong, say the people ApEx spoke to. We are dismissive of local languages that are easily accessible to us and that restricts our cognitive development, communication skills, as well as acceptance of different heritages. By restricting ourselves to a single language, we are also putting up barriers—in our society and in our minds—instead of bringing them down. “Bad English is shameful but we practically boast that our children aren’t good at Nepali or Newari or any other local dialect. That this not only puts them at a disadvantage in learning and development but also gives them a false sense of self. And that can have disastrous consequences,” says Rana.