A Bleak Fu­ture

Has self-iso­la­tion helped Bhutan to pre­serve its lan­guages and cul­ture?

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Kin­zah Mujeeb

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


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