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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.

Nepalese Classrooms, Where Languages Go To Die

Students in third grade at Mangal Prasad Secondary School in Banke take turns reading aloud to their classmates.

Amrita Jaisi

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.

Language barriers

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.

Amrita Jaisi/Global Press Journal

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.

Amrita Jaisi/Global Press Journal

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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The Oct. 7 Debacle: A First Deep Dive Into Israel's Intelligence Failures

The blind spots began appearing in the first hours and days after more than 1,200 civilians were slaughtered by Hamas terrorists, who breached the border from Gaza. A former Israeli military intelligence operative guides us through the mistakes that allowed it to happen.

Photo of two IDF soldiers in full military gear during a mission

Israeli soldiers during a military exercise in August

Ehud Levy*


Israel has been plunged into a conflict of unprecedented scale and intensity, mourning more than 1,200 civilian deaths and trying to save 150 or more hostages held in Gaza. At the conclusion of the ongoing conflict, which remains highly uncertain how it may unfold, Israel will need to conduct a thorough analysis to understand what went wrong in the national defense and intelligence sectors to allow the deadly attack to happen — and develop strategies for preventing anything similar in the future.

The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) had a long-established defensive perimeter around Gaza, equipped with various means and technologies designed to prevent terrorist attacks or, at the very least, to provide early warning and primary protection prior to the arrival of air forces or mechanized infantry.

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This defense system includes both upper and lower fences, a touch-sensitive indicative upper fence, observation posts, fire-control positions, infantry bases housing tanks, armored personnel carriers, and infantry units. Additionally, self-defense units operate in populated areas, acting as the final line of defense between the civilian population and potential terrorist threats.

Despite these robust security measures, in the early hours of Saturday, October 7, hundreds of Hamas terrorists managed to breach the fence at multiple points, infiltrating IDF outposts with relative ease. They killed or captured all personnel present at these outposts.

Concurrently, another group of attackers dispersed and infiltrated dozens of communities. These individuals were well-trained, proficient in countermeasures, and clearly driven by the singular intent of capturing or killing Jewish residents.

The IDF was unprepared for such a concentrated and widespread incursion of hundreds of terrorists who simultaneously breached the perimeter at multiple locations. Some settlements were located mere hundreds of meters from the border, while others were several kilometers away.

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