Nepal’s indigenous languages on the verge of extinction

Posted On June 28, 2013

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Of the many reasons behind the endangerment of indigenous languages, the foremost is the biased attitude of the state to different mother tongues.

Surya Sunuwar, 30 a student of sociology at Tribhuvan University can speak Nepali as fluently as any other native speakers. But whenever he mutters, he automatically switches to his native language – Koinch (Sunuwar).

“And sometimes I become a joker,” says Sunuwar. “It’s because I use Sunuwar language the most, (more than Nepali), at home (with my brothers in Kathmandu) and relatives with whom I spend most of my time.”

It is obvious, as he was born and raised in Khinji-Phalate in Okhaldhunga District where the Sunuwar indigenous community is densely populated and they mostly communicate in their Sunuwar mother tongue which is also prevalent in Ramechhap and Dolakha districts.

According to the National Census Report 2011, as many as 37,898 people can speak their Sunuwar mother tongue out of the total of 55,712 Sunuwars.

As Surya enjoys the beauty of his mother tongue so does Bhim Kisan, 30, of Mechi Municipality-4 in Jhapa. . However, he is worried that not many of his friends of same age and younger speak his mother tongue, despite its sweetness.

“Our mother tongue Kisan is already near extinction,” says Kisan, a Master’s student in Linguistics at the Central Department of Linguistics in Tribhuvan University and has recently completed his thesis on the verb morphology of Kisan mother tongue.

According to the National Census Report 2011, only 601 Kisans can speak Kisan of the total of 1,739 population.

“Worse, hardly any children in the Kisan community can speak their mother language,” says Kisan.

Nepal is considered a haven for linguistic studies. An informal data puts that between 130 to 160 languages are being spoken in Nepal, so do different researches that show similar findings. However, the Census 2011 puts the number at 123. Unfortunately, some of them have already disappeared while many others are under serious threat.

Of the many multiple reasons behind the endangerment of indigenous languages, the foremost is the biased attitude and unequal treatment of the state to different mother tongues, migration of linguistic communities from their original places to urban areas and then abroad, and the biggest one is the lack of awareness and unwillingness of respective linguistic communities to use their languages, according to Prof. Dr. Dan Raj Regmi, Head of the Central Department of Linguistics at Tribhuvan University.

“Out of total number of languages pegged in the recent Census report, only about 19 languages have approximately 96 percent of speakers, while the rest have merely 4 percent speakers,” says Yogendra P. Yadava, referring to his recent and yet unpublished study. He was former head of the linguistic department of Tribhuvan University. “Most mother tongues in Nepal are on the verge of extinction, their documentation is in urgent need.”

Vanishing voices

Nepal is home to as many as 123 languages, as per the recent Census and therefore is considered to be a haven for linguistic studies. But many languages in the country lie at various stages and several are on the verge of vanishing.

“There are nearly 40 Rai languages, and about five of them are already dead, and only about a few like Chamling, Bantawa are documented and the rest have a few speakers and therefore, majority of Rai languages are seriously endangered, “ says Prof. Dr. Nobel Kishor Rai, linguist. “The languages spoken in Nepal are in need of comprehensive documentation, if not, they will vanish in about 50 years.”

Linguists also opine that the reasons for endangerment of indigenous language communities are various, including declining speakers, transformation of the traditional habitat of a linguistic community through deforestation, or even natural disasters, migration from traditional habitats to urban and then abroad, to name a few.

No more than three Kusunda speakers exist today, and as these speakers live in different places, Kusunda language is rarely spoken.

“When two persons from different Rai languages get married, they resort to Nepali language in the family. It is similar with Kusunda, they are married with other communities like Magar, Thakuri etc. This has posed a serious challenge to the survival of mother tongues,” says Prof. Dr. Madhav Prasad Pokharel, at the Department of Linguistics, Tribhuvan University.

The Baram language spoken in Gorkha district is on the verge of extinction, as there are only a handful of members of this community speak this language today. Similarly, the Puma language spoken in Khotang district, and Chhintang language spoken in Dhankuta have no different situation. These languages will completely be dead if there is no program for expansion and development of them by the next two or three generations. Tilung, which is spoken merely by a couple aged above 60, and only a handful can understand it, in the southern belt of Khotang is going to disappear within this generation.

Dura language (once spoken in Gorkha) has no single speaker at all. There are 5,394, Duras, according to Census 2011.

“Tangran is the language of the Duras, which is I am documenting through those handful of Dura language speaking people, but the surprise is that, they do not write down their surname as ‘Dura’, “ says Kedar Bilash Nagila, who is documenting critically endangered Dura Language for his a PhD dissertation. “In course of joining British force, some of them wrote either Gurung, or Ghale, Ale Magar, but while tracing their family linage, they are from the Dura communities.”

According to him, even though there are not Dura speakers anymore, after it is documented well, it is likely to revive.

The worst still is, nearly about 11 languages – Byangsi, Chonkha, Longaba, Mugali, Sambya, Pongyong, Bungla, Chukwa, Hedangba, Waling, and Khandung –have already vanished with no hope of recovery. Many other indigenous languages including Koche, Lhomi, Kisan, Kusunda, Lingkhim, Kagate, Chitntang are under serious threat with less than 100 speakers of these languages surviving.

Perhaps not all languages are lost primarily for those who want their (comparably smaller) languages to revive and survive – the Maori language in New Zealand and Hebrew language in Israel are some of the best examples that a language can be brought back from the verge.

Prof. Dr. Pokharel states that there is need of documenting endangered languages and teaching. Teaching the concerned people their languages are the only ways of preserving them. “Hebrew language, which was already dead, was revived and now is the national language of Israel,” he maintains.

Towards inclusive language in education policy –promise and delivery

The marginalization of indigenous languages in the country is said to have started right from the territorial expansion of the nation led by Prithivi Narayan Shah in 1768. During the repressive Shah, and Rana regimes, ‘one language, one culture, one religion’ policies adopted during Panchayat era had suppressed the demands of the linguistic rights of the indigenous peoples completely.

Particularly after the restoration of democracy in 1990, the linguistic issue has been gradually gaining momentum. Although some of the previous legacy relating to the suppression of language was continued, the 1990 Constitution affirmed Nepal as a multilingual and multicultural country. The very same Constitution further stated that all languages spoken as mother tongues are the national language and further affirmed that every community residing within the country shall have the right to protect and develop its language, script, and culture, and equally the right to establish schools for providing education to the child up to the primary level in their mother tongue. The Interim Constitution in 2007 stated that all languages spoken in Nepal are national languages, further guaranteeing education in mother tongue and stated that local government offices can use any mother tongues as means of communication.

Grounding on these provisions, the government, non-government agencies, indigenous peoples’ organizations (who advocated fiercely on the mother tongue issue) embarked on taking a number of initiatives, including developing literacy materials and implementation.

The government has introduced a policy for teaching mother tongues as optional subjects at the primary level. Similarly, aiming to bring all children (especially from indigenous communities) to school, Nepal has launched an international initiative, ‘Education for All’ program. In 2007, with the technical assistance of the Government of Finland’s Department of Education (DoE), under the Ministry of Education (MoE), launched Mother-tongue-based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) as a pilot program primarily for eight mother tongues in seven schools in different districts – Tamang in Rasuwa, Aathaparia (Rai) in Dhankuta, Rana-Tharu language at Kanchanpur, Santhal and Rajbansi in Jhapa, Maithali and Urau in Sunsari, and Magar in Dhankuta. As the MLE yielded good results, the government scaled up to 21 schools. The school sector reform plan (2009-2015), another important education policy devised by MoE, aims to implement mother-tongue-based multilingual education in 7,500 schools.

“Policy-wise, the government is very liberal and clear. But when it comes to the implementation part, it’s really weak,” says Amrit Yonjan-Tamang, linguist, who was the former National Technical Advisor in Multilingual Education Program DoE/MoE. “The different language speakers have responsibility to be aware of their linguistic rights, crave for the preserving and protecting of their mother tongues and press for government officials to fulfill their commitments expressed in the legal documents and national and international forums.”

He also says that the National Foundation for Development of Indigenous Nationalities (NFDIN), a sole body set up by the government for the welfare of indigenous nationalities, their socio-economic and political status, including language, has no adequate budget for the wellbeing of indigenous languages even though theILO Convention No. 169, the internationally binding treaty, which Nepal is party to, has the provision that it be translated into different mother tongues, has not been able to do so, except in Nepali language.

It is the mother tongue-speaking commu,nities themselves who are more responsible in preserving and protecting the language.

However, Dr. Lal-Shyakarelu Rapacha, linguist at NFDIN, opines that to some extent, NFDIN has been encouraging mother tongue speakers by carrying out publications on various indigenous languages and recently it has initiated a pilot program on linguistic survey starting from Dolakha District.

A sign of hope

In a bid to identify and analyze Nepal’s overall languages to produce an encyclopedia and linguistic data on endangered languages, the Central Department of Linguistics, Tribhuvan University, embarked on an ambitious interdisciplinary project known as Linguistic Survey of Nepal (LINSUN) in 2007. But due to lack of funds, the work has remained stagnant, say officials.

Initially, the National Planning Commission, Ministry of Local Development, had granted a little fund along with the Ministry of Culture and State Restructuring and NFDIN. Initially, a basic glossary of words of 50 languages has been collected along with preparing textbooks. But there is no fund at all, according to Prof. Dr. Dan Raj Regmi, Head of central Department of Linguistics, Tribhuvan University.

According to him, the last linguistic survey of Nepal of any kind was done about a century ago by the British when it conducted a Linguistic Survey of India between 1904 and 1928. Similarly, there also had been two earlier attempts at conducting surveys of the country’s languages — Grierson’s Survey (1898-1927) and German Research Council Survey (1981-1984) but both had to be abandoned due to lack of finances.

The way out

Written languages are at least preserved by written testimonies and there is always a chance to revive them later on.But many languages in the country are unwritten, which are dying away when the speakers of the particular language pass away. There is such a danger that they will disappear, leaving no traces at all except for names of people and places. Therefore it is urgent to work for the preservation of the indigenous languages before it is too late, according to linguists.

Linguists also opine that education is of prime importance to reverse the present situation. The Mother-tongue-based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) up to primary level could be one of the best measures. For this, the government must allocate adequate budget for preparing textbooks, appointing mother tongue teachers and necessary stationeries. This will help not merely to address the linguistic rights of indigenous peoples and minorities but also to address multiple educational problems being faced by non-Nepali-speaking children.

According to Census report 2011, Nepal is home to as many as 123 languages. Linguists estimate that between 6000 to 7000 languages are spoken in the world. Of which, largest number of languages are spoken in Asia. Nepal stands on the 20th position. (See table below).

Fact file

Number of languages spoken as per the geography

SN Regions Language spoken percentage
1. Asia 2,269 32.8
2. Africa 2,092 30.2
3. Pacific 1,310 19.0
4. America 1002 14.5
5. Europe 239 3.5
Total languages 6,912 100

Source: Slightly adopted from Amrit yonjan-Tamang, ‘Thunga’ NFDIN 2013

World’s multilingual countries having more than 100 languages (Ethnologue, Report 2005)

Ranking Countries Number of language spoken
1. Popua New Guinea 820
2. Indonesia 743
3. Nigeria 516
4. India 427
5. United States of America (USA) 311
6. Maxico 297
7. Cameroon 280
8. Australia 275
9. China 241
10. Congo 216
11. Zayer 210
12. Brazil 200
13. Philippines 180
14. Malaysia 147
15. Canada 145
16. Sudan 134
17. Chad 133
18. Russia 129
19. Tanzania 128
20. Nepal 125


22. Myanmar (Burma) 113
23. Vietnam 104
Total languages spoken in these countries 5989

Source: Slightly adopted from Amrit yonjan-Tamang, ‘Thunga’ NFDIN, 2013

Language in Census 2011

According to Census 2011, there are 123 languages spoken in Nepal as mother tongue. Nepali is spoken as mother tongue by 44.6 % of the total population, followed by Maithili by 11.7 %, Bhojpuri by 6 %, Tharu by 5.8, Tamang   5.1 %;  Newar  by 3.2 %;  Bajjika by 3.0%, Magar 3.0%, Doteli  by 3.0 and Urdu by 2.6% of the total population of the country.

Ranking Language percentage population
1. Nepali 44.6 11,826,953
2. Maithili 11.7 3,092,530
3. Bhojpuri 6.0 1,584,958
4. Tharu 5.8 1,529,875
5. Tamang 5.1 1,353,311
6. Newar 3.2 846,557
7. Bajjika 3 793,418
8. Magar 3 788,530
9. Doteli 3 787,827
10. Urdu 2.6 691,546

Source: Census Report 2011, CBS

A scenario of language endangerment of Nepal

1. Safe languages (13)(having a large number of speakers and a lot of educational materials) Newar, Limbu, Magar, Tharu, Tamang, Bantawa, Gurung, Rajbangsi, Tibetan, Sherpa, Khaling, Kham and Sign language
2. Almost safe languages (13)having at least a frequent use of them in media Chamling, Santhali, Chepang, Danuwar, Dhangar/Jhangar, Thangmi, Kulung, Dhimal, Yakkha, Thulung, Sangpang, Darai and Dolpo
3. Potentially endangered languages (8)having only a few elderly and fewer adult speakers Kumal, Thakali, Chantyal, Dumi, Jirel, Athpariya, Mugali and Belhare
4. Endangered languages (22)(Spoken by less than 500 people Umbule, Puma, Yholmo, Nacchering, Dura, Meche, Pahari, Lepcha, Bote, Bahing, Koi, Raji, Hayu, Byangsi, Yamphu, Ghale, Khariya, Chhiling, Lohorung, Sunuwar, Majhi and Bhujel
5. Seriously endangered languages (12)(Spoken by less than 500 people Mewahang, Kaike, Raute, Kisan, Chuarauti, Baram, Tilung, Jerung, Dungmali, Baragaunle, Nar-phu and Manangwa
6. Moribund languages (7)having bellow 100 speakers Lingkhim, Kusunda, Koce, Sam, Kagate, Chhintang and Lhomi
7. Extinct or nearly extinct languages  (11)(Having no speakers at all) Byangsi, Chonkha, Longaba, Mugali, Sambya, Pongyong, Bungla, Chukwa, Hedangba, Waling and Khandung

Source: slightly adopted from Govinda Bahadur Tumbahang CNAS/TU

Sunuwar is a Freelance In-depth feature writer (published on 2013, April 19, at The week, Myrepublica, daily newspaper:




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