Updated: April 22, 2019 04:21 AM GMT
A 12-year-old Nepalese boy poses in front of Shree Buddha Secondary School in Gorkha District, about 250km northwest of Kathmandu, months after a massive earthquake shook the region in 2015. Many parents in Nepal see an English-centric education as a ticket to a better life for their children. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)
The latest linguistic trend in Nepal seems to be that "if you speak English, you will conquer the world" — which spells bad news for our mother tongue.
I remember not so long ago being approached by the financially distressed mother of a young girl who sought my help in finding an affordable private college for her daughter.
I suggested she enroll the girl at a public campus, but my proposal was met with a look of ashen-faced horror from the young student.
"Oh no," the daughter replied. "I can't understand them when they teach classes in Nepali."
Another recent episode also springs to mind. I was conducting a training session for community leaders on promoting local culture, values and languages one day while a large group of schoolchildren in the neighborhood were having their morning assembly.
To my surprise, a teacher interrupted their excited chatter by bellowing the following command: "You are not allowed to speak Nepali inside school premises. You should speak English only!"
Most private schools in Nepal, which has been blasted for its dysfunctional education system, are not able to provide students with a high-quality education because they can't afford to pay for experienced teachers.
But schools that teach exclusively in English are mushrooming across the country, even in the remotest of villages.
Meanwhile, the first words or nursery rhymes that toddlers are likely to hear and internalize at kindergartens are English, making their parents proud.
Due to the English craze that is sweeping the nation, many government schools are hemorrhaging students and struggling to sustain their operations.
Quite a few have merged or shut down in order to survive financially, while the survivors lack resources and are often in a shabby state.
Some have pounced on the coattails of the new trend by switching from teaching in Nepali to English as they strive to remain competitive and keep their enrollment numbers up.
However, one of my friends who has taught at both government and private colleges in Kathmandu said this is creating a worrying situation where many students are left completely baffled due to the language barrier.
"Nepali students are suffering," he told me. "They hardly follow what we teach in English. They can't even ask questions if they don't understand."
A few years back, Tribhuwan University, the oldest institute of higher education in Nepal, introduced a semester-based system of teaching for the first time in the country.
Everyone welcomed the move and hoped the academic calendar would run on time. Despite such expectations, many students abandoned their classes when they found all the lessons were being delivered in English.
Learning English has become a moral obligation for many young Nepalis as various social and economic factors lead people to believe that having a firm grasp of English makes you better, smarter and opens doors.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is welcomed in June 2014 at a Buddhist monastery in Kathmandu where she worked as an English teacher in 1973. Suu Kyi now serves as Myanmar's first state counselor. (Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP)
Nepal has 125 castes and ethnic groups, and 122 languages, according to the 2011 census.
At a micro level, Nepali Khash Bhasha, the national language of Nepal, gobbled up most of the native indigenous languages as the country went through a long process of Hindunization under the notion of "one religion, one language and one culture."
As time passed, English began to dominate.
Other educators believe teaching children in their mother language is preferable. Several government schools I visited in remote parts of western Nepal adopted a bilingual approach, offering classes in two local tribal languages to kids from grades 1-3.
Nonetheless, I could see many parents scrambling to get their offspring moved to locally administered, English-centric private schools. These had higher enrollments than the cheaper government schools.
I asked one of the parents why she would send her children to a private school while her family is struggling to survive from day to day.
"My son doesn't understand Nepali properly, and the Kham languages [spoken in the Nepalese highlands] are useless in the wider world," she lamented.
"At least if he learns English, he can venture beyond our village and find his way to a more comfortable life in the big city or broader world."
Similar stories and concerns can be heard in most villages despite many studies supporting the argument that kids learn best in their mother tongue, especially when this is the prevailing force in a multilingual education rather than focusing on a single "foreign" language like English.
The main point I am trying to address here is how Nepali mother tongues are being degraded by the day as people migrate to English.
In my own experience, English was definitely "not my cup of tea" until I finished school. Coming from a poor family in a remote village, I struggled with English at a government school and barely passed my exams.
As I was quite proficient at mathematics, I signed up for a science faculty after finishing high school, but to my dismay found that all lessons were taught in English. As a result, a two-year academic course took me six years to complete.
I remember feeling terrified at the prospect of studying in English, so I set about trying to raise my game. A friend suggested I start by reading the daily news in English.
He said it would bolster my confidence as Nepal's dailies often use quaint, antiquated or otherwise amusing English terms and expressions, and it is true this helped to patch up my tattered nerves.
One of the myths about education in Nepal is that children can learn faster and more effectively if they are taught in English.
But the world is much more diverse than that: the veil covering my eyes was only lifted when I visited Europe and found there are other, more competitive languages being spoken around the world.
However in Nepal, people's zeal for English is spreading so quickly that it is even starting to become an official working language at many private organizations and government offices.
For example, my new Nepali driving license is all in English, with nary a Nepali word in sight.
One of my friends who is a linguist sent me an email the other day informing me that "sometimes English is learned at the cost of mother tongues. The worst way of teaching people is to use English as the main medium of education from the outset. They have been fooled to believe that English-medium education leads to a higher level of competence. It often means those children never learn their mother tongue and/or Nepali to a high level, especially in writing."
We forgot Sanskrit a long time ago. I had to study it in my early schooling but the coming generation may very well never learn a single word of that language.
Meanwhile, hundreds of indigenous languages are in danger. Some have disappeared forever.
Not native speakers
In my office, half of my colleagues were taught at English-only schools. They struggle to read and write in Nepali, and their English is not perfect as they are not native speakers.
It's getting to the point where more offices are struggling to find someone who can type in Nepali on a keyboard.
On the other hand, those who attended classes in Nepali can at least communicate in both languages in a more functional way.
Another threat to our mother tongue is technology, with people preferring to use English on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
Even those who can't understand English are becoming habituated to sending messages on their phones using Romanized alphabets instead of the Devanagari script on which Nepali is based.
Many people (including myself) who are not fluent in Nepali tend to mix the two. But sadly, "Nepanglish" is now undergoing a process of monstrification as yuppies, development workers and educators wear it like a cultural trophy to show they are smarter than their peers.
To protect our mother tongue, the government must streamline Nepali education by putting a lid on excessive English-oriented teaching.
The burning question is whether this would this constitute a violation of people's right to choose.