Shunning English

  • By making Nepali the only official language, we have hindered our ability to compete internationally
- Sujeev Shakya
Historically, the usage of the Nepali language and the shunning of English has been used as a tool of protectionism and as an excuse not to compete with other nations all over the world

Feb 13, 2018-A few weeks ago, the Office of the Company Registrar (OCR) published a public notice that said that all documents submitted had to be in the Devanagari script and in the Nepali language. The notice basically quoted Article 7 of the Nepal Constitution 2015. It further stated that all translations need to be made by a notary public and then submitted to the OCR. When I voiced my opinions on social media and shared my dismay at Nepal’s continuously inward looking policy, many responses claimed that this decision was nationalistic. One Nepali professional living in London wrote that if documents in the US cannot be submitted in Nepali, then why should we allow documents in Nepal to be submitted in anything other than the Nepali language. Suffice to say that I blocked him from my account. 

Dumbfounded nationalism

Historically, the usage of the Nepali language and the shunning of English has been used as a tool of protectionism and as an excuse not to compete with other nations all over the world. The shunning of English has been the hallmark of many of our educational policies. Many Nepalis during the mid-20th century went to India or other countries abroad to pursue their education. They brought back global perspectives and used English along with Nepali for professional communication. However, King Birendra’s hotchpotch education policy killed off any inroads that were made towards realising globalisation. Now, in present day Nepal, all leaders in all walks of life have been educated in this hotchpotch system; they promote the exclusive use of the Nepali language and shun English.

What is ironic is that now, the children of those people who are in key positions in  the government and who push these nationalistic ideas are mostly pursuing their education outside Nepal and may never return. So there is a complete dichotomy when we look at what these leaders practice at home, and what they prescribe for our country. It is ironic that the same bureaucrats who show-off at social events that their grandchildren who are growing up in the US or the UK or Australia cannot even speak Nepali, take pride in shunning English and exclusively promoting the Nepali language when it comes to work.

The business community, especially those who have been active over the past two decades, have chosen Nepali as their working language. Because they do not wish to compete with the outside world, they seek to use the Nepali language as a deterrent for foreign investors and firms. I recall a conversation I had with a chairman of a financial institution regarding a potential investment from a foreign financial institution. He was quick to drop the idea of the investment and I will never forget what he told me. He shared that if he allowed foreign investors to come into his institution, the board meeting would have to be conducted in English and his control over the company would disappear.

Global standards

English is the global language in which business is conducted. Those of us who made it to English language schools and had the world open up for us as a result realise that we have a comparative advantage. We have seen how career options open up in the world of business or finance, because English is the primary language of work. With knowledge of English, one can even compete with global firms in other markets. Countries that have a relatively small population do not have the capacity to change the rules. It is therefore advantageous to embrace English and take on the world. Singapore is a classic example. More recently, Rwanda too changed its second official language from French to English. Imagine the plight of India, if the Hindu nationalists had made Hindi the only official language in the country. Would the information technology, software, engineering and other industries have flourished? 

Nepal does not have such a large economy that we can set the standards and the language of the business world. We have only one option available to us: to make English a working language as well. Many in the Nepali legal fraternity have survived in their profession by ensuring that they continuously bring in protectionist measures so that they do not have to compete with international firms and standards. Nepal is one of a few countries that do not allow international legal firms to operate within their borders. After the advent of global banks in Nepal in the early 90s, documentation and other paperwork had to be conducted in English, giving an advantage to Nepalis who had global exposure. However, over a period of time, this too has changed and we have brought back mediocrity as our benchmark and allowed an industry of notary publics and a substandard quality of legal knowledge and practice to bloom.

Shaping the future

My own personal reflection reveals that the exposure to the English language has made my work in the Nepali language and my own mother tongue better. It has allowed me to appreciate the nuances of culture while enabling me to push towards understanding my profession and professionalism better. If we look around, Nepalis around the world who have been successful in business and allied professions have done so partly because of their bilingual strength. The option is not “either/or”. It is both. By giving Nepali and English equal importance at the federal level, it will only shape a better future for Nepal.

Published: 13-02-2018 08:07

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