Beyond the dzong

Following on what some have characterised as an increasingly faltering campaign, recent months have seen a renewed push by the Thimphu government to strengthen the usage of Bhutan's national language, Dzongkha. In mid-May, the Bhutan InfoCom and Media Authority released a draft annex stipulating new rules for the country's film industry. Alongside warnings against depictions of drugs, alcohol use and 'disco scenes', prominent among the 11 points was an admonition to avoid intermixing English and Dzongkha – 'Dzonglish' – words 'as far as possible'. In accordance with official practice, the draft guidelines were released in both English and Dzongkha – seemingly an ongoing necessity, despite the fact that the latter is the country's only official language.

Despite widespread grumbling over the new language rules for 'Thollywood', two weeks later a far more significant piece of policy was mooted. Another piece of draft legislation, this was the Dzongkha Development and Promotion Strategy Framework; it included 48 recommendations put forth by the Dzongkha Development Commission, the body in charge of such things. Most notable among these is a plan to significantly strengthen the amount of Dzongkha-medium classes in the country's schools. While until recently the ratio of Dzongkha-to-English instruction has stood at around 6:2, the new guidelines would push for 'parity' between the two. Certain classes (environmental studies, social studies) would now be entirely in Dzongkha for certain grades, while classes on Dzongkha itself would become a required part of the core curriculum for the upper grades (10-12), as they currently are for lower grades.

Already for years, Dzongkha has been the sole subject that Bhutanese students have not been allowed to fail – anyone who does cannot pass to the next grade in school. So what is behind this new anxiety to shore up the national language? Partly, it is the newness of the language itself, or at least the newness of the way in which it is used today. The roots of Dzongkha are easily traceable to certain forms of classical Tibetan, and from then into the unique linguistic strands of theocratic liturgy in the Drukpa dzongs, or monasteries, from which the language takes its name (kha simply means language). Beyond this, however, the language's history is highly contested. But uncontested – at least in the factual sense – are the dates of official application: Dzongkha only became Bhutan's official language in 1969; before that time, Hindi was the medium of instruction in the schools, while since then nearly all instruction has been in English; the Dzongkha Development Commission was set up only in 1986; the first formal Dzongkha grammar book was published in 1992.

Most sacred cow

Inevitably, such a relatively recent induction of a national language has thrown up challenges to the full gamut of Bhutanese society. After all, Dzongkha is the mother tongue for only one ethnic group – the Ngalong, the traditional ruling group, which makes up around a fifth of the population – and is one of nearly two dozen languages spoken in the country, with Nepali and English being by far the most widely understood. The law, however, has little room for such nuances. According to official discussion that took place in the National Assembly in mid-June, potentially embarrassing inconsistencies have been arising during the simple process of naming new official institutions, due to the fact that these bodies are typically named in English before being translated into Dzongkha. Recently, for instance, the president of a new medical institute was being officially referred to by a word (sidzin) that in fact means the president of a country. According to one Dzongkha expert quoted in the local press, such problems 'would not arise if the bills were drafted first in the national language'.

This is almost certainly true, but the statement only serves to underline the oddness of the current situation: a state promoting a national language that, despite years of work, still only a minority really speaks. Of course, nation-building has always been a long, hard road, and few in the modern era have taken it more seriously than the Bhutanese government. The official priority placed on Dzongkha usage is encapsulated in the driglam namzha (often translated as the 'Rules for Disciplined Behaviour'), a set of law-backed guidelines on how to act 'properly' Bhutanese, including how to dress and speak. Importantly, the Driglam Namzha is traced back to Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, the 17th-century Tibetan lama who is revered as the unifier of the modern state of Bhutan. Today those attempts at unification continue apace, albeit in the more politically correct guise of state attempts to 'protect' Bhutan's unique culture.

Of course, there has been pushback against this top-down attempt at homogenisation. Despite the lofty linguistic lineage attributed to the Driglam Namzha, much of what is today collectively referred to under this rubric was only elevated to law during the late 1980s. This was a time in Bhutan when certain minority communities, notably the Lhotshampa of the south, were increasingly mobilising and demanding greater democratic reforms of the isolated kingdom's governance structures. The sudden imposition of harsh repercussions for flouting Drukpa dress codes and language requirements (the Lhotshampa are Nepali-speaking of various castes and ethnicities) contributed to a sense of unwelcome that, coupled with rising incidents of violence, led to tens of thousands of Lhotshampa and other Bhutanese (especially the Sarchop of the east) leaving the country in the early 1990s – some of their own volition, some being forcibly expelled. Until recently, around 107,000 of these refugees have been living in UN-overseen camps in southeastern Nepal. (A 'third-country resettlement' policy is today fast emptying the camps as the refugees head for lives in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.)

Since the 1980s, although the Driglam Namzha has remained the law of the land, it is widely understood that certain rules will be far more stringently enforced than others. Wearing the official dress of gho or kira, for instance, or speaking or writing in Dzongkha, is closely followed at official functions, but far less so on the streets and in informal situations. Of course, reactions to this laxity run the spectrum: from seeing this evolution as a detrimental erosion of national pride on the one hand, to a natural and positive relaxation in line with civil-liberties norms on the other.

The government, meanwhile, has become increasingly despondent over the snail-paced spread of Dzongkha. Even as more primary-level school classes are designated for Dzongkha-medium instruction, reports come back that more time is being spent teaching the language than the theocratic subjects – more time spent on Dzongkha in history class, for instance, than on history in Dzongkha. In 2009, after history was mandated a Dzongkha-medium subject, just 14 percent of history teachers were found proficient in the language – a lowly statistic that perhaps led to the reversal of this policy in 2010. At the time, opposition leader Tshering Tobgay noted that he was going to be sending his son to school in Darjeeling to counter the government's Dzongkha requirement. 'In the last three years, thousands of our students have learnt little history and they probably now dislike Dzongkha even more,' he wrote on his blog. 'Not good for the students. Not good for our national language. Not good for our country.'

In June 2010, at the tenth symposium on the health of the national language, participants gloomily noted that Dzongkha simply could not compete with English, despite the money being poured into its development. The previous month had seen the publication of what remains the touchstone in the debate over the efficacy of Dzongkha as a national project. At that time, Rinpoche Khyentse Norbu, a prominent lama and filmmaker (he directed arguably Bhutan's two most famous films, The Cup and Travellers and Magicians), published a worldly, discursive 4000-word article, in English, titled 'Many questions, few answers'. In the interests of 'honest discourse', Norbu engaged in an exploration of what he termed some of Bhutan's central 'sacred cows', which he conflated with 'adhering rigidly or blindly to old habits and traditions'. His central focus was language and the state-led imposition of Dzongkha – certainly this was the topic that sparked off the greatest reaction. Indeed, the ripples of debate from Norbu's article – ranging from personal diatribes to eminently well-reasoned public deliberation – have yet to dissipate even today.

So what did Norbu have to say? In truth, nothing particularly revolutionary; but his words nonetheless sparked off significant reaction due to Dzongkha's long-time place as, in Norbu's words, 'the most sacred cow of all'. He clearly understood the waters into which he was wading: 'Quite frankly, there is a problem in every discussion of Dzongkha being regarded as so highly "sensitive",' Norbu began. 'Surely the issue of the national language is no clandestine project and should be squarely in the public domain.' He then went on to enumerate the commonly understood – but not commonly discussed – situation: that despite government attempts, few people today speak Dzongkha; that many students and teachers alike dislike it, and that their time could be better spent learning relevant subjects; that the language's official status not only 'disempowers' non-Dzongkha-speaking politicians and, more importantly, renders government process into a format that most commoners cannot understand. He even suggests that Dzongkha, as a relatively new invention despite its ancient roots, does not actually do much to preserve Bhutan's heritage. 'I know these are extremely touchy subjects,' Norbu wrote. 'But in the process of building a nation, tough questions have to be asked, and indeed, our new democracy requires us to have the courage to debate these issues openly and without fear.'


The Dzongkha Development Commission, the highest level of government involved with the preservation and proliferation of the national language, says it is aware of concerns for Dzongkha's long-term prospects, and that it is acting to counter other cultural forces that today compete with Dzongkha. 'We have departments and local authorities that are monitoring how the language is being used in the country,' a high-level official said recently, on condition of anonymity. 'There are programmes, school competitions, committees to spread the language. And then we have sections that focus on literature development, writing books, compiling essays, organising symposiums and other things.'

Asked whether he had read Rinpoche Khyentse Norbu's May 2010 article questioning whether Dzongkha is worth so much of Bhutanese students' time, the official laughed. 'I read the rinpoche's article,' he said, noting that seemingly every citizen had read the controversial piece. 'Some of his views are right,' the DDC official continued, but added, 'when you lose a species, there are still fossils to recover. But when you lose a language, there is nothing to recover. It is gone forever. So we try to encourage the use of Dzongkha through education, the use of it through the media, the use of it throughout the country.'

There is some progress to report. Since its 2005 founding, the Dzongkha Language Institute (DLI, a quasi-private organisation that operates under the DDC) has provided more than 1500 civil servants with Dzongkha information-technology training in areas such as Unicode and Linux. An additional 500 people have completed tailor-made Dzongkha courses at the institute. And after continuing education in Dzongkha was made a priority in 2008, 145 students enrolled to upgrade their proficiency in the national language.

Further, the government is not alone in its efforts. Individual citizens such as Chungdu Tshering are also working to address concerns around the decline of Dzongkha. Tshering, the owner and operator of Druk Neytshuel, a weekly newspaper published in Dzongkha, has asked himself many of the same questions that Norbu asked the country in his provocative article. But Tshering found different answers. For him, it is important that schools dedicate more time to Dzongkha, not less.

That is why a list of Druk Neytshuel's primary objectives includes 'Preserving and promoting the national language' and 'Help[ing] students learn simple and daily Dzongkha through the newspaper.' Tshering has even dedicated the centrefold of every issue to instructional Dzongkha lessons for children. 'It's about preserving culture,' he said. 'Now we are exposed to the outside world – we are getting more and more tourists in every year, Bollywood is coming in, Hollywood is coming in, and so many other cultures. So we need Dzongkha.' If Druk Neytshuel's company profile is anything to go by, however, it is clear that working in Dzongkha is not easy. That document states that the newspaper's greatest challenges include 'Less number of Dzongkha readers', 'Difficulty in getting Dzongkha reporters' and 'Less training opportunities for Dzongkha reporters.'

It is not only Dzongkha newspapers for which the national language is an issue. Since private media ownership was first permitted in Bhutan in 2006, it has been a mandatory requirement for English-language papers to publish a Dzongkha edition. As described in an April 2011 story from the English-language Bhutan Observer, 'For every English paper in the market, its Dzongkha edition has been a big financial liability … Unfortunately, media houses have suffered incalculable losses, and with an exception of a few, most of them have failed to publish a quality Dzongkha edition.' The story suggested that because of this, the 'Dzongkha edition has not only been a burden on the media houses, but also a liability for the national language itself,' given the frustration that it is creating.


Perhaps most importantly, Rinpoche Khyentse Norbu's article opened the door for a wide-ranging public debate of a type and breadth that was all but unprecedented in Bhutan. In talking to Bhutanese today, the topic of Dzongkha offers a potent opportunity to check in on a range of fundamental reactions in this nascent democracy – about how they view themselves, their government and their country.

Recently, sitting in a restaurant in the Bhutan-India border town of Phuentsholing, for instance, the jumble of languages that flowed across the table was as much a discordant medley as the meal was an ethnically diverse disaster. Across plates of ewa datsi, dosa and pizza flowed conversation in a scrambled version of Nepali that included words and phrases in four other languages – Hindi, Dzongkha, Sharchop and English. To hear such dialects that teeter on the edge of total cacophony is not uncommon in border towns, no matter where you are. But the conversation in Phuentsholing was little different from the typical back-and-forth one hears on the streets of Thimphu.

A couple of weeks before that dinner in Phuentsholing, a similar group of Bhutanese – young and middle class, educated both in Bhutan and outside of the country – was sitting in a fourth-floor office on Nordzin Lam, the capital city's main drag. 'Dzongkha isn't as widely spoken anymore, especially in urban settings,' said Jurmi Chhowing, editor-in-chief of the Journalist, an English-language weekly. 'The trend, unfortunately, is that more youngsters would rather communicate with one another in English than in Dzongkha.'

Like most young Bhutanese, Chhowing took Dzongkha lessons through grade school. But he said that, as an adult, he feels more comfortable expressing himself in English, and recalls that Dzongkha classes were never his favourite. 'In school, we had language instructors that used to teach in really conventional methods,' he explained. 'They would give you a nice whipping if you weren't up to the standard.' Corporal punishment (now banned in Bhutan) meant that Dzongkha was often grudgingly learned, Chhowing recalled, and not out of passion. 'Because they feared attacks, many students gave up Dzongkha, or did not give it as much attention as is required,' he said.

As Chhowing discussed the state of Dzongkha in Bhutan today, colleagues wandered in from lunch and, interested by the topic, moved closer in order to listen in on the conversation. 'We really lack Dzongkha literature and resources like comics and books that we need to teach children in schools,' chimed one young reporter.

'Who cares?' noted another. 'There is just too much time spent on it.'

A debate – ironically, with most speaking in the Sharchop tongue of the east – then erupted throughout the crowded office. Everybody spoke over one another until Chhowing brought attention back to his desk. 'I think, in our hearts, Dzongkha is very much a part of us and very important to us as a people and our identity,' he said, prompting employees to nod in agreement. 'Your culture is only as alive and as vibrant as your language. And when your language is dead and gone, then the spirit of your culture will suffer.'

Chhowing went on to emphasise that while he disliked Dzongkha class, he agrees with the government's insistence that children learn the national language in school. 'My son – I would like him to take up Dzongkha,' he said. 'I want him to read and write Dzongkha as well as he does English.' This is a common and important nuance: most Bhutanese say that while Dzongkha faces challenges on several fronts, the government's efforts are worthwhile and should continue. Bhutan, many seem to feel, should have a national language that unifies the country's people.

Elective nation-building

There is clearly a difference, however, between what appears to the ideological inclination towards nation-building and how that actually goes forward on the ground. At an upscale cafe a few blocks from Chhowing's office, Letho, the owner, said that he also feels that Dzongkha should be a mandatory class for all students, at least all the way through grade school. 'Since Dzongkha is considered the national language, you feel that it is simply important,' he said. With Bob Dylan playing in the background, Letho argued that just because Dzongkha is competing with other cultural forces, such as Bollywood films and American rock music, is no reason to give up on the language. 'Look at another language, like Hebrew,' he said. 'I think many people who speak Hebrew read and write in English, but they still learn Hebrew because they have decided it is important. And I think that could happen in Bhutan too.'

Down the street, Kinley Klein, the operator of another restaurant who has lived in several places around the world, also said that Dzongkha deserves the mandatory attention of Bhutan's students. But he suggested that by the time children reach middle school, perhaps they could be presented with Dzongkha as an elective, and given the choice to opt out in favour of a different class – 'Like French in Canada,' he said.

In an apartment building further up the hill, Varuun Dhital, who works in website design, said that as painful as 13 years of mandatory Dzongkha lessons were for him, he still believes that speaking the national language is an important part about being a citizen of Bhutan. 'I still think you have to learn it,' he maintained, this coming from someone who excelled in every subject except Dzongkha, which nearly prevented him from graduating.

Indeed, it is remarkable how similarly Letho, Klein and Dhital see the subject of Dzongkha in the schools system, at least in broad strokes. Beyond these, each also expressed concern for what they described as a growing discrepancy between how the government wants Dzongkha to be used and how Bhutanese citizens actually carry out everyday business and social interactions with one another. 'They're pushing it through schools,' Dhital said. 'But then once you get out of school, it's not used anymore. I hate to say it, but I think it is slowly dying off.'

~ Carey L Biron is Desk Editor at Himal Southasian and Travis Lupick is a Canadian journalist currently traveling in Africa

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