A Bleak Future
Has self-isolation helped Bhutan to preserve its languages and culture?
Until a few years back, Bhutan successfully spared itself from social havoc by keeping its religion and culture intact. All this changed recently when Bhutan found itself struggling to maintain political stability. The landlocked country finds itself squeezed between two powerful neighbors, each offering a distinctive and spectacular flavor of multifaceted religious and cultural hues. Bhutan is a multi-lingual society and, for a tiny country, it appears to have several spoken languages but it makes sense when one considers its geographic location and history. Despite being small, the torrential rivers and deep gorges have separated and isolated several villages and valleys, thus giving birth to several dialects.
There are two differing views regarding these spoken languages - 25 listed for Bhutan in the comprehensive catalogue of the world’s languages whereas George Van Driem, a linguist at Berne University, lists 19. One of the key languages in this list, Dzongkha, spoken in the west of the country, is the official language of Bhutan and is an off-shoot of Tibetan, but it uses a
different script. It is commonly known as the language of the fort and became the national language only in 1971. Besides this, there are Sharchopkha and Nepali, spoken in the east and south, respectively. Although Dzongkha is largely spoken in Bhutan, English is the medium of instruction in schools. Meanwhile, the heavy influence of globalization is also visible through the prevalence of Hindi, which is not only understood but also widely spoken by most Bhutanese, thanks to the infuence of Indian cinema.
It is obvious then language, culture and identity are inextricably linked together. It is generally believed that if you want to destroy a nation without the use of weapons, then you must destroy its language. Understanding that there are three domains of culture namely, literary heritage, spirituality and folklore, the Kingdom of Bhutan’s Article 4 of its draft Constitution says that it is the ‘state’s responsibility to preserve, protect and promote the Bhutanese cultural heritage’.
Although the term Gross National Happiness was first coined by Jigme Singye Wangchuck, the fourth King of Bhutan, the idea behind this has prevailed since 1729. A legal code of 1729 states that “if the government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the government to exist.” Since their government’s focus revolved around the nation’s happiness, language played a crucial role in bringing people together. However, since the advent of television in 1991, English has become popular in Bhutan. Since it is the medium of instruction in school, it is widely perceived as the language of opportunities, guaranteeing upward social mobility.
Furthermore, as English is used for communication in the mass media, there is evidence of consumerist values trickling down Bhutanese culture. The Bhutanese people, experiencing a late interaction with the rest of the world, began enjoying the luxuries, equipment, ideas and fashion that they had deprived themselves of over the years. Due to imports at an accelerated pace, an increased rise in the consumption pattern was noticed. Now the locals possess numerous gadgets, equipment, accessories and luxury items quite like their counterparts in developed countries. A superficial observation of their extravagant lifestyle may mislead many into listing Bhutan among one of the developed countries of the world. In reality, however, the country is dependent on 4050 per cent of foreign aid for survival.
To counter the influx of western values, newspapers such as Kuensel and Tashi Delek were introduced. According to Mindu Dorji, Editor of the Kuensels Dzongkha edition, the government has adopted many innovative initiatives and activities to develop and promote Dzongkha and in that sense the language has progressed. However, soon not only private papers wanted Dzongkha out but the readership was also declining.
In fact, Lungtaen Gyatso, principal of the Institute of Language and Culture Studies (ILCS) in Semtokha, said, “despite studying Dzongkha for about 11 to 12 years in schools, majority of the students were unable to write without many mistakes and that the standard of Dzongkha was far poor than that of English.” The complexity of grammar, spelling and strange concoctions of Dzongkha language has further promoted English in Bhutan, while making the national language appear static in its progress. He further added, “Today people are not sure of what concrete advantages they can avail from the knowledge of Dzongkha, so when there is a choice between the two, people naturally go for English.”
Thus Dzongkha is losing its significance, while English continues to be used as a popular medium of communication. Consistent efforts need to be made to popularize Dzongkha. Since it is very different from English, the educational system must adopt a different methodology to teach Dzongkha.
The national language is always the best means of communication for any particular country as it has the ability to reflect indigenous values and cultures. However, in light of recent events, Bhutan’s national language appears to have a bleak future ahead.
Reinforcing it in offices will also serve as an incentive for many students who believe that Dzongkha has no practical and professional value. The national language is always the best means of communication for any particular country as it has the ability to reflect indigenous values and cultures. However, in light of recent events, Bhutan’s national language appears to have a bleak future ahead. Kinzah Mujeeb is pursuing a B.A in Media Science from SZABIST, Karachi.
Districts of Bhutan where Dzongkha is spoken as a native language