Nepalese Classrooms, Where Languages Go To Die
In Nepal, local schools are encouraged to offer instruction in the first languages of their students. But even in linguistically diverse regions, the only words they still hear and read are in Nepali.
BANKE — English and health studies are 14-year-old Dilip Godiya’s favorite subjects. Unlike other subjects taught at his school in the city of Nepalgunj, they don’t require him to be effortlessly fluent in Nepali. Dilip grew up speaking Awadhi at home, the mother tongue of half a million Nepalis and millions more in northern India, so adjusting to Nepali as a language of learning was a major challenge. Until fourth grade, he found it difficult to read and hesitated from speaking up in class.
“Sometimes, I still struggle with speaking proper Nepali,” he says, an eighth grader now.
As many as 123 languages are spoken in Nepal, a linguistic diversity evident in multicultural Banke district, where 3 out of every 5 residents are non-Nepali speakers. Despite a provision in the 2015 constitution mandating that all children have the right to education in their first language — as well as a national curriculum plan introduced in 2019 that mandates localized curricula and recommends multilingual instruction to facilitate learning for non-Nepali speakers — all eight municipalities in Banke district have yet to do so.
Consequently, many non-Nepali speakers send their children to schools across the border in neighboring India. Bhupendra Singh Sodi, who runs a dental clinic in Nepalgunj, is one of them. The Sodis migrated from the Indian region of Punjab five generations ago for business and, over time, Awadhi and Hindi — dominant in Banke — replaced Punjabi as their first languages. Despite the presence of a nearby government school, Sodi’s son and two daughters study at the Assembly of God Church in the Indian border town of Rupaidiha, where Sodi himself once studied. Hindi, the medium of instruction there, is easier for Awadhi speakers to comprehend than the Nepali used at the local school.
Sodi went on to pursue a bachelor’s degree in sociology at an Indian college. “I know all the Indian political history,” he says. “I know the Indian national anthem by heart; I know it was written by Rabindranath Tagore. But I don’t know who wrote the Nepali national anthem.” It saddens him to know so little about his own country — and he worries his children will experience this sense of alienation too. He wants his daughter to become a dentist and told her she could study in Kathmandu, where dental education is cheaper. “But she said she can’t succeed there due to the language barrier and expressed interest in pursuing dentistry in India.”
Dentist Bhupendra Singh Sodi poses for a portrait in his office.
When tradition gets in the way of education
Non-Nepali speakers consistently underperform at school. In the last five years, according to government data, rates of class repetition among elementary school students in Banke were higher in areas such as Nepalgunj, Narainapur, Duduwa and Janaki, where the proportion of non-Nepali speakers is higher. An analysis of the last three years of Banke district’s final secondary education exam results — conducted at the end of 10th grade — found that only 30% of students who scored a GPA higher than 3.0 were non-Nepali speakers. If learning outcomes were equal, that number would be closer to 60%, the percentage of Banke residents who are non-native speakers, according to the 2011 census. (2021 census language data was unavailable.)
Nepali-language instruction isn’t the only reason for these results, says Bhagwan Prasad Paudel, chief of the education development and coordination unit in Banke, a government entity. “Students are present during admissions season but have low attendance throughout the year, due to farmwork and festivities,” he says. “This rate is higher among members of the Madhesi community [who tend to be non-native Nepali speakers] than among people from hill communities.” In one school in Nepalgunj, for instance, 53 students are enrolled in the third grade but only 20 or so attend regularly.
But Bikram Mani Tripathi, an education expert and himself a non-native Nepali speaker — Awadhi is his mother tongue — says the language barrier manifests itself in more than one way. “In the past, each caste had an occupation: some worked with wood, some with iron, and others with leather or soil,” he says. “As these traditional occupations started dying, the burden of sustenance fell on farming activities, especially for communities who could not speak Nepali or English and could therefore not compete for government jobs. As their income dried up, parents started making their children work from a young age. Repeating a grade or leaving school altogether may not be the direct result of the language barrier, but it is a side effect.”
Satish Maharjan, a teacher at Shree Secondary School in Lagdahawa, says a poor grasp of Nepali sets students back. “In an eighth-grade science exam, if a student uses the Awadhi word for bullcart rather than the Nepali word, a teacher from a different community would deduct points,” he says. “This is why non-Nepali speakers don’t get good results.” Students tend to struggle with Nepali grammar and accent marks, and they have difficulty reading lessons out loud, says Kriparam Barma, assistant principal at Mangal Prasad Secondary School, adding that “as Nepali, Hindi and Awadhi share a written script, students tend to write cognate words the way they are written in their mother tongues, which is considered incorrect in Nepali.”
Students cross the border between Nepal and India near Banke.
Making room for all languages
Teachers who speak the same language as their students could improve learning outcomes, but multilingual instructors are hard to find. In the school where Maharjan teaches, for instance, 5 out of 17 teachers are non-Nepali speakers compared to 70% of students. Municipal authorities, who decide what is taught in schools in their jurisdictions, cite this as a primary obstacle in implementing local curricula in languages other than Nepali.
There also is the challenge of having multiple languages spoken in a community. In Banke district, four of eight municipalities — Kohalpur, Rapti Sonari village, Khajura and Nepalgunj submetropolitan — developed their mandated local curricula this year. But neither they nor the other four municipalities have yet to produce textbooks in languages other than Nepali, in part because of the linguistic diversity of local students who speak Awadhi, Urdu and Tharu, among other languages.
“Starting this year, we have implemented the local curriculum,” says Jeevan Neupane, head of the education branch in Rapti Sonari village, “but not in mother tongue.” Some municipalities are preparing to develop curricula in Awadhi, spoken by nearly 24% of Banke residents. The curriculum for grades one through 10 have been developed, says Tripathi, who has worked with the government on this project.
Fourteen-year-old Dilip may have graduated by the time Awadhi-language instruction is implemented in Banke, but it would be a boon to many who come after him. Even a teacher who would take the time to explain that “aama” is the Nepali word for “maa” in Awadhi — “mother” in English — would be a rare relief for children trying to follow an unfamiliar tongue. “Some teachers spoke very fast in Nepali,” he says. “I was often very nervous. When an Awadhi-speaking teacher stood in front of the classroom, it was easier to speak and ask questions.”
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