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The Politics of Language Contact in the Himalaya

Selma K. Sonntag
Mark Turin

3. Transforming Language to Script

Constructing Linguistic Authority through Language Contact in Schools in Nepal

Uma Pradhan

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I am deeply indebted to the teachers, parents and students of Jana Kalyan Higher Secondary School for allowing me to be part of their lives during my PhD fieldwork. I am also grateful to United Mission to Nepal (UMN) team. This research would not have been possible without their logistical support and countless insightful discussions with the United Mission to Nepal (UMN) team. I would like especially to thank Khitiz Raj Prasai (UMN), Sheshram Chaudhary (JKHSS), and Nanda Kumar Giri (JKHSS) for their time and support. This paper has benefitted enormously from feedback from and discussions with David Gellner, Nandini Gooptu and David Mills at the University of Oxford. I cannot thank enough the editors of this volume, Selma Sonntag and Mark Turin, for their very detailed feedback and the opportunity to publish this chapter. All errors remain my own.

  • 1 The school requested the use of their actual name, rather than the pseudonym, so that thei (...)
  • 2 Tharu language is a contested category. Sonntag (1995: 115) notes that ‘Tharus are an ethn (...)
  • 3 By bad words, he meant the rude words (gāli) and forms that denote a less respectful way o (...)

‘Earlier they used to speak phohor (unclean) and je pāyo tyehi (unsystematic) Tharu. Now they speak rāmro (good) Tharu, while also learning Nepali’, one of the parents told me as he described his child’s progress in Jana Kalyan Higher Secondary School (JKHSS).1 JKHSS had been implementing a Multi-Lingual Education (MLE) program since 2010, with the financial and technical support of United Mission to Nepal (UMN) and the Government of Nepal. As a part of the MLE program, the school used Dangaura Tharu2 — the language spoken by ninety per cent of the student population — as the language of instruction for all subjects in Grades I–III. In line with this, JKHSS also developed a set of textbooks using three different languages — Tharu, Awadhi, and Nepali simultaneously. As I inquired further about this, the Vice Principal of the school, who is also the chief editor of textbooks, explained the process of MLE implementation and textbook preparation: ‘When we started mother-tongue education in our school, we refined our language [parimarjit garyaũ]; we removed ‘bad words’,3 systematized it and made it suitable for the textbooks.’ (Interview, 3 Jan 2014).

1This apparent sanitization of the language is one of the ways in which JKHSS prepared the Tharu language for school education. The practice of removing what are seen to be profanities, jargon, bad grammar and mispronunciations — a process that also aims towards linguistic hygiene — is a result of an urge to improve and clean up language (Cameron 1995). In JKHSS, this process of cleansing the language was animated by three main challenges. First, while the MLE program opened up official space for minority language education in JKHSS, it also put a spotlight on its putative lack of appropriate vocabulary, standardization, and grammar. As in many other mother-tongue education schools, the teachers and the school administration of JKHSS had become acutely aware of an “inadequate” level of literary development in their language, especially when developing new textbooks. Second, the MLE program brought minority languages such as Tharu in close contact with the national education system and the dominant language, Nepali. Third, this language contact created a process of negotiating linguistic authority, albeit within the confines of nationally-mandated guidelines. In order to use Dangaura Tharu for education, the school and textbook writers had to change this primarily oral language into a written language, and prepare it for the purpose of education. This chapter explores the ways in which local languages are being reshaped through the process of transforming a spoken language into a written language, and how this dynamic is revealing the understandings of the nation that are currently being reconfigured through language contact in schools.

  • 4 Tharus are classified as an indigenous nationality (ādivāsi janajāti) by the Government of (...)

2Methodologically, this chapter is based on fieldwork conducted between August 2013 and March 2014 in Jana Kalyan Higher Secondary School (JKHSS). JKHSS is a government school in Kapilbastu district, in Nepal’s Tarai, the plains adjoining India. The school is located in the middle of a Tharu village.4 At the time the fieldwork was undertaken, there were a total of 1,048 students in JKHSS, of which 304 students in the primary grades were the direct beneficiaries of the MLE project, 90 per cent of whom are Tharus according to school statistics. As part of the MLE program, JKHSS had published textbooks in Dangaura Tharu and Awadhi that were used in JKHSS and its five ‘feeder’ primary schools. During my fieldwork, I researched how ‘mother-tongue’ was understood and what was actually happening when the local language was officially introduced in the school. For this purpose, I spent time interacting with students, parents and teachers, observing classroom teaching and staff meetings, studying school textbooks, and participating in the everyday life of the schools. By drawing attention to the Tharu textbook development process, this chapter discusses the ways in which local textbook authors are transforming a primarily oral language such as Tharu into a written script and, through this, claiming linguistic authority.

3This chapter argues that by ‘performing’ a language in a particular way in a particular situation, people assert the legitimate authority of that language and seek to shift power relations between languages. I will elaborate on this by, first, discussing the ways in which local languages are being reconfigured by their supposed sanitization. Second, I will discuss how standardization and correction played a role in the writing of Dangaura Tharu, thus ensuring its claim as ‘language’ as opposed to ‘dialect’. Third, I will show how local languages were transformed in new ways via linguistic standardization. In doing so, I will discuss the ways in which local language authors sought authority through the process of publishing textbooks within the national education framework. This chapter aims to add to the existing scholarship on language contact by highlighting the implications language contact has for the negotiation of linguistic authority, and by drawing attention to the often overlooked dynamics of written language contact and the legitimization of specific regimes of authority. This analysis may help us to appreciate the inherently constructed nature of language.

Linguistic Authority Through Language Contact

In Nepal, the institutional space for the use of minority languages for the purpose of education opened up in a context in which language had become a highly politicized issue. During the 1990s, Nepal witnessed persistent ethno-linguistic activism that raised voices against the ‘one nation, one language’ policy of an earlier era. Gellner (2007) identifies the post-1990 period as a time of ‘ethnicity-building’ (distinct from the period of nation-building before 1990) where different ethnic groups made demands for mother-tongue education and the use of local language in public offices, in addition to various other claims for territorial autonomy and recognition. In such a context, language has served as an important tool for promoting and challenging varying visions of Nepal. In response, the Constitution of Nepal (1990) declared Nepal a multi-ethnic (bahu jātiya) and multilingual (bahu bhāsik) country, with all the languages spoken as mother tongues duly recognized as ‘national languages’ (rāstriya bhāsā). The constitution also granted citizens the fundamental right to primary education in their own mother tongue, a provision that was carried over to the subsequent Constitution of 2015. This official adoption of minority languages for the purpose of education in Nepal is often portrayed as a radical departure from a historical context in which the use of languages other than the one former national language, Nepali, was considered divisive and therefore against the law.

  • 5 In 2009, the government of Nepal piloted multilingual education in seven primary schools: (...)

4One of the key features of the language movement in Nepal has been its effort to normalize minority languages in public arenas such as education, media, and state institutions. At the time of writing in 2018, there is now a five-minute news broadcast on Radio Nepal, the state-run radio station, in a number of ‘languages of the nation’ and a weekly page in Gorakhapatra, the state-run newspaper, in a number of languages other than Nepali. The Royal Nepal Academy has included research on ethnic languages in its programs since the 1990s. Similarly, Nepal National Plan of Action (GoN 2003: 47) has created space in the existing policies that focus on the inclusion of ethnic, minority, Dalit and women and girls on the development and use of local languages. This was further taken up by the School Sector Reform Plan 2009–2015, which set a target of 7,500 schools using the mother tongue as a medium of instruction in grades one to three. In line with this goal, the Government of Nepal piloted multilingual education in seven primary schools in 2009 (mother tongues, Nepali and English as mediums of instruction).5While such actions have not been enough to bring about significant changes, they have nonetheless opened up spaces for more minority language education, while at the same time demonstrating the Nepali state’s commitment to embrace the linguistic diversity of its population.

5It is within this constitutional context that JKHSS started implementing multilingual education, and introduced Tharu and Awadhi as languages of instruction. Multi-Lingual Education in Nepal describes a model that involves starting education in the medium of the language that a student already speaks, i.e., the mother tongue. Inside a classroom this means learning school subjects like math, science and social studies in the student’s first language (usually the mother tongue, or L1), then introducing a second (Nepali, L2) and third (English, L3) language as ‘subjects’, and gradually transitioning to L2 and L3 as media of instruction as needed. Multi-Lingual Education is based on the principle of ‘first-language-first’ in order to help children make a better start, and they go on to perform better than those who begin their education in a language they don’t understand (UNESCO 2011). In addition, Multi-Lingual Education also operationalizes provisions in the Constitution of Nepal that recognize the multi-ethnic and multilingual nature of the country. The idea and practice of mother-tongue education thus played out in changing discourses of social inclusion and multi-ethnicity.

6In the socio-political context of Kapilbastu, where Nepali is the dominant language of education, multilingual schools such as JKHSS are also spaces where different minority languages come into close contact with dominant languages. Scholars such as Pratt (1991) describes these overlapping spaces as ‘zones of contact’ or the areas in which two or more cultures communicate and negotiate shared histories and power relations. These are also the spaces where ‘cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other’ (Pratt 1991: 34). Given that different groups in the contact zones enjoy different power positions, Bourdieu’s work on language and power is also instructive here. Bourdieu notes that language symbolizes relation to power, and therefore that no one acquires a language without acquiring a relation to that language (Bourdieu 1977). In this context, what counts as an authoritative performance of language and who is deemed to be a legitimate speaker reveal how social boundaries are constructed.

7Multilingual school spaces, therefore, provide an ideal site for exploring the dynamics of language contact in education. They not only bring ethno-linguistic groups together but also provide a context to examine how various actors negotiate a ‘complex network of historical power relations between the speakers as well as between the respective groups to which they belong’ (Bourdieu 1991: 118). Further, Bourdieu argues that the production and reproduction of relations of power are legitimized through ideologies of language (Bourdieu 1977) and accomplished through social and discursive practices in a number of institutional sites, one of the most important being educational institutions (Bourdieu and Passeron 1970). Through the process of endorsing a particular language as an official language, using it for the purposes of schooling, and providing accreditation, education institutions legitimize the use of languages. Schools thus serve as important institutional spaces for conferring social authority and legitimacy on the use of a specific language in society.

8Precisely because of the power-laden dimensions of education, the issue of language in education can become important to the social and political struggles of a country. The choice of language in education can play a critical role in the construction of modes of participation in, and legitimation of, activities controlled by the state. Many studies on language education around the world have discussed how the introduction of a minority language in school education can allow for the possibility of revaluing languages within the same institutions (Gal 1995; Heller 1996; Martin-Jones and Heller 1996). This growing body of research illustrates how particular social groups organize themselves to claim space in these educational institutions. These researchers argue that discursive negotiation in educational institutions can offer insights about the specific kinds of language practices that are legitimized, thereby illustrating the ways in which particular practices help to advance or marginalize the interests of different groups, and in the process alter the relations of power between these groups.

9In Nepal, even as mother tongues, in principle, are accepted as the language of education, the ‘under-developed’ nature of various languages is perceived to pose practical challenges for the successful implementation of mother-tongue education. More mainstream languages, such as Nepali, are regarded as well-developed in terms of their grammar, phonology, vocabulary, standardized form and written tradition, and therefore deemed to be more suitable for use in public domains. Many minority languages in Nepal do not have standard orthographies, grammar, or written traditions. This perceived linguistic ‘under-development’ assigns minority languages low status, thereby rendering them undesirable for use in public spaces and for the purpose of education. Turin (2006) notes that Nepal’s National Language Policy Recommendations Commission presented a four-fold stratification of languages spoken in Nepal, ranked on the basis of having a written form. Written languages were accorded higher status than solely spoken ones. Accordingly, many ethnic and language activists seek to transform spoken languages into written languages as a way to seek linguistic authority. In this chapter, I discuss the ways in which the speakers of minority languages seek to enhance their sociolinguistic status through various mechanisms such as claims of ‘authenticity’ (Woolard 2016; Jaffe 2001), ‘correction’ (Bilanuik 2006), ‘acceptability’ (Gal and Woolard 2001) and ‘legitimacy’ (Bourdieu 1977).

10By analyzing how language is performed in multilingual school spaces, we may be able to discern the process through which linguistic standards and linguistic ideologies are strengthened. Categories such as linguistic standards and authority are produced by expert knowledge as well as linguistic ideologies shared more widely among speakers. By ‘doing things with words’, as Austin (1962) explains, language performance constitutes social action. When people struggle to elevate and legitimize their identity through language, they reaffirm a system that links linguistic forms with social status. As Heller argues, it is most fruitful to analyze language performances as discursive spaces within which ‘social actors, whatever else they may be doing, also define (again and again, or anew) what counts as legitimate language’ (2010: 278). Since the minority languages often start out at a relatively less powerful position, these ways of negotiating linguistic authority by adhering to linguistic standards are important methods for minority languages to be legitimized in an educational context. In the following sections, this chapter outlines how language contact in educational institutions has implications for the production, legitimization and distribution of linguistic authority.

Writing Language, Claiming “Authenticity”

  • 6 At least five distinct groups are popularly known: Rana Tharu in the far western region, K (...)

When JKHSS joined the MLE program, local teachers in the school commenced an important project of publishing textbooks in Tharu. As Guneratne (1998, 2002) notes, the category ‘Tharu’ is used to denote several disparate groups of people living in the southern areas of Nepal, often referred to as the Tarai. Although they share the same name — Tharu — the members may belong to many communities with very different languages and cultural practices living across the Tarai.6 Nonetheless, the Tharu encounter with Hill people has sharpened the sense of Tharu being a distinct group of people, even though different Tharu groups might speak different languages (Guneratne 2002). Several national and local social Tharu organizations such as the Tharu Welfare Society and the Backward Society Education (BASE) have been working on various development projects for the welfare of the Tharu population (Krauskopff 2008; Guneratne 2002). McDonaugh (1989: 200) records the establishment of ‘the association for the improvement of Tharu language and literature in the west of Nepal’ in the 1970s. Many of these organizations relied on cultural and language activities to organize the various Tharu communities. However, these are primarily oral languages, with very limited written literature, with the result that none of the Tharu languages have been used for education purposes, either in the school or for higher education.

11In this context, the textbook writers had the challenging task of not only transforming the oral language into a written one, but also ensuring that it represented “authentic” Tharuness that would be acceptable both at the local and national level. This was important, especially given that the set of mother-tongue textbooks developed by the Nepal Government’s Curriculum Development Centre (CDC) in nineteen different languages had not been accepted by the various schools across the country. Since most of the mother-tongue textbooks were centrally published by the CDC in Kathmandu, school administrators and teachers were dissatisfied that books were translations from Nepali textbooks and the contents were disconnected from local realities. In addition, the form of language used in the book did not match with the local variant of that language, and since the printing and distribution of these books were coordinated centrally, schools always faced problems in their timely distribution, resulting in availability problems and shortages. Because of these ongoing issues, both the CDC and JKHSS felt that the local publication of the Tharu language curriculum was both relevant and practical.

12The books were introduced as ‘local’ subjects as per the government of Nepal’s 2003 (2060 BS) provision for a ‘local subject’ in the primary school curriculum. In addition, the guidelines for primary education set aside twenty per cent of the curriculum for subjects like social studies and health and hygiene to be based on locally-relevant material (CDC 2007). The Curriculum Development Centre (CDC) outlines the minimum skills and competence to be delivered by textbooks in all languages in its Model Curriculum for Mother Tongue and Textbook Guidelines 2007 (2064 BS). According to the guidelines, the subject material should be prepared in coordination with the local resource center and district curriculum coordination committee. However, in order to be approved by the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC), the school materials needed to adhere to the age-grade objectives and competence level mentioned in the guidelines.

Table 3.1. List of mother-tongue textbooks used in the Jana Kalyan Higher Secondary School (JKHSS).

Name of Textbook Subject Class Language
Apane Bhasa,
Apane Sikhi
Tharu I, II, and III Tharu
Aapan Bhasa,
Apanen Shikhav
Awadhi I, II, and III Awadhi
Bighyan Sikhi Science I, II, and III Tharu, Awadhi, and Nepali
Sahajey Sikhi Hisab Math I, II, and III Tharu, Awadhi, and Nepali
Hausille Sikhi,
Social Studies I, II, and III Tharu, Awadhi, and Nepali

Source: Published jointly by JKHSS, the United Mission to Nepal (UMN) and the government of Nepal

Within this state-sanctioned space, JKHSS introduced a series of textbooks in 2010. This series included Tharu language textbooks called Apane Bhasa, Apane Sikhi and Awadhi language textbooks called Aapan Bhasa, Apanen Shikhau (‘let us learn our language’) for students in grades 1, 2 and 3. These language textbooks were introduced with the objective of teaching these languages both as a subject and as a medium of instruction. The textbooks included a collection of poems, stories, essays, letters and plays. Each lesson was followed by a list of questions and exercises to ensure that the students had learned the appropriate language skills for that age grade. The textbook writers ensured that the various lessons in the textbook met reading, writing, and comprehension skills as per the guidelines of the Curriculum Development Centre (CDC).

Fig. 3.1. Mother-tongue textbooks in Tharu and Awadi. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.

Fig. 3.1. Mother-tongue textbooks in Tharu and Awadi. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.

Fig. 3.2. Math textbook, lesson 5, page 5. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.

Fig. 3.2. Math textbook, lesson 5, page 5. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.

For subjects like science, mathematics and social studies, the books were prepared using three languages — Nepali, Tharu and Awadhi — simultaneously on every page. In the textbook extract above, presented on the right, the mathematics chapter on geometry is printed with Tharu on the top, followed by Awadhi and Nepali. Each line in the textbook is written in three different languages. The school teachers explained that although 90 per cent of JKHSS students speak Tharu as their first language, they also have students who speak Awadhi and Nepali as their first languages. All three languages — Tharu, Awadhi, and Nepali — belong to the Indo-Aryan language family, and are shown in Figure 3.1. The three languages are recognized as distinct, considered to be mother tongues by different linguistic communities, and have varied literary traditions (as will be outlined in the following sections).

13Therefore, in order to facilitate the mother-tongue education of this multilingual student population, the textbook was written using different languages. Moreover, Devanagari script was used for all three languages to facilitate easy readability. The choice of script will be discussed further below.

14These books were written and printed locally, and their chapters made reference to various objects and activities that were considered ‘authentic’ representations of the locality. The textbook writers made a particular effort to include local stories, names, contexts, and pictures while designing the contents of each book. This space occupied by ‘the local’ (sthaniya) in the textbooks enabled the textbook writers to reproduce more ‘authentic’ language and to establish mother-tongue education as legitimate pedagogy. This process of textbook publication was not without conflict and contestation. The national guidelines also required the school-level bodies such as the School Management Committee (SMC) and the Parent Teacher Association (PTA), as responsible bodies, to support and sign off on the textbook production. In case of any disagreement between the textbook writers and the committees, the final decision was reached on the basis of the most ‘authentic’ and ‘local’ representation, in addition to an adherence to the guidelines provided by the government of Nepal.

15These textbooks included local knowledge for educational purposes within the national curriculum framework, and often presented overtly essentialized notions of ethnicity as the ‘authentic’ identity of Tharu and Awadhi language speakers. Through this process, more ‘traditional’ representations of Tharu and Awadhi culture and artifacts influenced final decisions on the subject matter, pictures, and the presentation of the book. As other studies on minority languages around the world have also pointed out, the idea of ‘authenticity’ serves an important function in reconstructing the public form of a language and negotiating its authority. Stroud (2003) points out that using the notion of authenticity, local languages are articulated as the social identities of their speakers. Authenticity, Woolard (2016) explains, is more concerned with who one is rather than what one says, i.e., with social indexicality rather than referential function.

16Mother-tongue education was therefore not just about getting marginalized groups into and through schools successfully, but also about changing the nature of education itself, in both its organization and in its curriculum. Comparing his efforts in contributing to textbooks with his early experience of publishing Tharu newspapers, the chief editor of the Tharu textbooks reasoned: ‘Writing a school textbook is more meaningful. Once approved, it is printed in thousands of copies and the younger generation read it and learn about it’ (Interview, 15 Jan 2014). Teaching language to the younger generation in the schools was seen as an important way to keep a language alive, especially in the context of Nepal where studies have shown that younger people are increasingly ceasing to speak their mother tongues (Pettigrew 2000; Turin 2013). In order to combat this and to reformulate the grounds on which demands for the language could be made, the school actively engaged in publishing textbooks in local languages and seeking recognition. This was also seen as an important way to overcome the designation of their language as a ‘dialect.’

Fig. 3.3. Class 2 Tharu textbook, lesson 10, page 33. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.

Fig. 3.3. Class 2 Tharu textbook, lesson 10, page 33. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.

Fig. 3.4. Class 2 Awadhi textbook, lesson 3, page 68. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.

Fig. 3.4. Class 2 Awadhi textbook, lesson 3, page 68. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.

Language, Dialect, and Making “Corrections”

According to the introductory section of the textbooks, one of their objectives was to strengthen students’ competence in speaking, reading, writing and understanding the language. The emphasis on various aspects of language competence, including reading and writing in addition to speaking and understanding, meant that these languages required a systematic written tradition. In a context where the languages did not have a well-developed written tradition, the process of writing books transformed the languages in ways that would impute ‘rationality to intelligible utterances’ (Burghart, 1993: 763). This meant developing an internal process to set phonological rules and grammatical structures, and to develop age-grade appropriate literary vocabulary. The teachers and the school administration in JKHSS thus sought to ‘refine’ their languages through textbooks. Weinberg (2015) also documents a similar process of publishing school textbooks in order to facilitate education in the Dhimal language — a language spoken by the Dhimal community, primarily located in the Jhapa and Morang districts of southern Nepal.

17This emphasis on various aspects of language competence, including reading and writing in addition to speaking and understanding, meant that each language required the development of a writing system and an agreed orthography. Therefore, as Turin (2006: 66) points out ‘the lexicalization of a language and the development, or resurrection, of a suitable script or set of orthographical conventions have become prerequisites for introducing a language into education as the medium of instruction.’ Explaining the situation of different languages in Nepal, Noonan (2006: 179) argues that for languages such as Gurung, Magar, and Tamang, the differences between dialects will have to be resolved before a standard can emerge if these languages are ever to serve as vehicles of education or administration. A similar thought animated the Nepal National Language Policy Commission when they presented a four-fold stratification of language on the basis of having a written form. The written tradition has gradually become the basis for a ‘caste-system of language’ (Turin 2006).

18Many studies on the Tharu language have shown that Tharu is a highly contested linguistic category (Sonntag 1995; Guneratne 1998). Scholars have also noted the difficulty in distinguishing it from its regional Indo-Aryan variants such as Awadhi, Maithili and Bhojpuri. However, since Tharu is often perceived as a language mainly spoken in Nepal, as opposed to Awadhi, Maithili and Bhojpuri which are also spoken in India, Tharu has often been prioritized in the Nepali state’s language policy (Sonntag 1995). This perception was echoed by the chief editor of the textbooks who stated, ‘Awadhi and Tharu are very different languages. In addition to the use of a distinct set of adjectives and a grammatical structure, one of the distinctive features is that Awadhi is closer to Hindi whereas Tharu is closer to Nepali’ (Interview, 3 Jan 2014). In his MA thesis on Tharu and English adverbs, he had made this case when arguing for the position of Tharu as a distinct language. In his thesis, he also annexed a collection of Awadhi adverbs used in his locality. This list clearly listed that the Tharu and Awadhi had very different words used as adverbs; thus showing that Tharu and Awadhi are different languages. As Burghart (1984) points out ‘mutual unintelligibility with other languages’ is not necessarily the main criteria for determining a language. The difference between bhasa (language) and bhashika (dialect) is determined by its social and political status. Bhasika is by definition local and spoken (sthaniya boli). A bhasa exists in a formal sense (dignified by grammatical description) and possesses written literature, making schooling in that language possible.

19The writing of textbooks in JKHSS also facilitated a larger project of developing grammatical descriptions for the purposes of written literature. However, this process also transformed these languages into new forms. The legitimacy of a language as an acceptable tool for education is often linked to ‘correct’ use of the linguistic code. The constant process of ‘correction’ of the Tharu and Awadhi languages served a dual function: first, to ensure distinctiveness and, second, to gain acceptance as a formal language. This also allowed these languages to find a space within state institutions, as languages with fully-developed writing systems and codified grammar. For Tharu, which is primarily a spoken language with limited written traditions, this process was also seen as a way to demarcate the linguistic identity of one language from that of the other. For languages like Awadhi, which has a written tradition, the process of textbook writing enabled it to be presented as a more formal language.

20‘Writing’ therefore became a way to prevent a language from being labelled as a dialect of another language. It also helped to standardize the language, thereby granting it the status of a developed language in which schooling would be possible. Though Dangaura Tharu had a written tradition, it had not been systematized earlier. Drawing mainly from the oral traditions and limited written material available, Tharu textbooks were prepared. In the case of the Awadhi language, though it had a fairly well-developed written grammar, there were disagreements regarding the use of some vowels. In spoken Awadhi, the vowel ‘ya’ is more commonly used, instead of ‘ai’ used in Nepali. The first set of text books printed in Awadhi therefore used the vowel ‘ya’ in the text, e.g., padhaya (to read), banakaya (in the forest). However, in the later versions, they decided to use the vowel ‘ai’ instead of ‘ya’ e.g., padhai (to read), banakai (in the forest). This rewriting of Awadhi, resembling the Nepali system, was considered more practical because was would facilitate easy reading in schools.

21This process of correction works to maintain patterns linked with the language of power, which in turn become more visible in the form of judgements about the language. Scholars studying the development of the Nepali language have repeatedly illustrated similar dynamics in the language standardization that occurred in the 1900s. In the early 1900s, Nepali had a very limited literary role compared to many other languages used in India such as Hindi and Bengali. Nepali was characterized, as Chalmers (2003: 144) points out, by a lack of uniformity in spelling, grammar, and style. In addition, it was not the only language spoken by people of Nepali origin residing in India. Disappointed by the state of their language, the Nepali-educated middle class living in Banaras and Darjeeling spearheaded a language revival movement. The process to standardize Nepali also brought Nepali writers from different places to agree on the most acceptable form of literary Nepali (Hutt, 1988). Chalmers (2003) notes that the idea of the unnati (progress) of the Nepali population was the key driver of much of the work on developing the Nepali language in Benaras. These early Nepali literary scholars regularly published journals for the purpose of ‘bhasonnati’ (language progress) to mitigate a perceived sense of backwardness in relation to other communities in India.

Fig. 3.5. Class 2 Awadhi textbook, lesson 16, page 54. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.

Fig. 3.5. Class 2 Awadhi textbook, lesson 16, page 54. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.

The legitimacy of a language as an acceptable tool for education is often linked to ‘correct’ use of the linguistic code. This constant process of ‘correction’ of the language serves a dual function: firstly to ensure distinctiveness and secondly to gain acceptance. This practice of language ‘correction, ’ as Bilaniuk (2005) points out in her study of Ukrainian language politics, is an important way to claim language authority. She argues that the legitimacy of a language as a discrete entity is often linked to linguistic correctness, and points out that a locally-spoken hybrid language, known as surzhik, was stigmatized as a substandard form of speech. This cleansing of language has also been defined by Deborah Cameron (1995) as linguistic ‘hygiene’, a normative practice that represents a symbolic attempt to impose a particular order on linguistic practice. It is for this reason that Bourdieu (1991: 60) defines ‘legitimate language‘ as a semi-artificial language that has to be sustained by a permanent effort of correction.

Fig. 3.6. Class 2 Awadhi textbook, lesson 3 page 66. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.

Fig. 3.6. Class 2 Awadhi textbook, lesson 3 page 66. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.

22By striving to refine their language, the textbook writers were altering it from the multiplicity of oral forms to the singularity of a written form. In addition, this process helped to stabilize and standardize the language. Such corrections show that the professional linguist’s insistence on objectivity and scientific inquiry appears to arise partly from the neglect of the sociological use and importance of language. Historical studies of language show that standard languages have often been superimposed on dialects (Milroy and Milroy 1985). As Bourdieu reminds us, it is important to appreciate that ‘disagreements over merit or demerit of specific forms, whether particular pronunciation, lexical items, or syntactic forms, mask the fact that in their disagreement people are agreeing to the rules of the game by which the legitimacy is defined’ (1991: 58). By carefully constructing what speaking the ‘authentic’ language means, the textbook writers and teachers also reveal the value attached to certain linguistic rules and the ways these rules determine people’s choices towards correction and purification in anticipation of social acceptability.

Language, Script, and Social Acceptability

As the language activists and JKHSS school administration began to systematize the language for the purpose of schooling, they also engaged in the process of standardization. Transforming oral language to written form also meant that many variations of the same word or many words for the same objects had to be presented in a uniform manner. Sheshram Chaudhury, the chief editor of the Tharu textbooks, said ‘In cases where different names were used to denote the same thing, we chose the one that was closer to Nepali.’ Similar language dynamics have been documented by Hutt (1986) in his analysis of the Nepali language standardization process, where Nepali intellectuals deliberately chose Sanskrit words that were different from the Hindi words, in order to establish Nepali as a distinct language. This ensured that the local languages had wider readability, mediated potential conflicts, and enabled them to engage more meaningfully with the state. Moreover, all the books were in written in the Devanagari script, the same writing system used for the Nepali language. The teachers in JKHSS explained that the use of a common script makes it easier for all the various people involved: the writers and the teachers can follow it easily, and the students learn it faster as the same script is used in most of their other school subjects. Since many languages either do not have a separate script or have more than one script associated with their language, it is easier for language workers to use Devanagari. Using a common script was seen as a way to make the language legible to the state and to other people who were literate in Nepali. According to the recommendations presented in a Report on Primary Education in Mother Tongue (GoN 1997):

  • 7 Translation by the authors.

Devanagari script must be used when using mother tongue as a language of instruction, while protecting the authenticity of the language (niji visheshta). If different languages are used, the students will face difficulties when they graduate to higher grades. This might hinder the overall development of education in Nepal. In order to avoid this problem, a common script i.e., Devanagari, must be used. Historically, we have seen that languages such as Maithili and Newari have used Devanagari script. This will serve many purposes: it will strengthen the unity of the country, the students will not be overburdened with the additional script, and it will also facilitate easier learning of Nepali texts.7

Fig. 3.7. Class II social studies textbook, lesson 2, page 40, written in Tharu, Awadhi and Nepali, using Devanagari script. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.

Fig. 3.7. Class II social studies textbook, lesson 2, page 40, written in Tharu, Awadhi and Nepali, using Devanagari script. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.

Various other book-writing instruction manuals recommended similar positions. The Support Material for Implementation of Multilingual Education Program (Kadel 2010: 83) cautions mother-tongue textbook writers against placing emphasis on the language rather than the script. It urges writers to follow the phonetic pronunciation of the word in the mother tongue and use Devanagari script to codify it in writing. If there are any popular ways of writing any words in the mother tongue, Nepali or English language, the book suggests a similar convention must be used in writing them in the mother tongue, e.g., the English word ‘computer’ should be written phonetically in Devanagari. Similarly, a Report on Primary Education in Mother Tongue (GoN 1997: 12) recommends that every language should collect at least 5,000 basic words so that it could be used for the purpose of primary education. In addition, every subject, such as science, social studies, mathematics, health, literature etc. should include an additional 1,000 subject-specific words to the textbook vocabulary. If some (technical) words are not available in local languages, these words can be taken from other languages.

23The emphasis on having a standard script for different languages serves multiple functions. First, different languages that do not have a standard script may seek to develop their language into written form. Second, it mediates potential internal tensions within the language group that may arise if there were more than one script that were commonly used. Third, the use of a standard script facilitates the wider recognition of the language. This particular way of constructing the social ‘acceptability’ of language highlights a deep-rooted social hierarchy, as well as its manifestation in language. This creation of an apparently naturalized link between language and its social value, often referred to as language ideology, is a judgement based on the existing social order (Gal and Irvine 1995). It is through an adherence to these widely accepted forms that people seek to either confer or deny social legitimacy.

24While there are many minority languages in Nepal that have been advocating for their own distinct scripts (e.g., prachalit lipi for Nepal Bhasha, sirijunga script for the Limbu language), it has been difficult for language activists to garner wider social acceptance at the national level. Language activists often see a unique script as an embodiment of an ‘authentic’ language and as an important milestone in gaining higher status on the national stage, especially with the Language Commission (Shneiderman and Turin 2006). In JKHSS, however, the textbook writers paradoxically saw the unique script as posing a challenge in making the language more accessible to the students and more acceptable to the Nepali government. These overall frameworks that shape linguistic practices are invariably manifestations of linguistic ideologies, and indicate the practices in the making of political authority (Gal and Woolard 2001).

25It is also important to note that the schools at no point sought to establish themselves as separate from the state. On the contrary, their efforts were geared towards engaging with the state more effectively. For the schools, strong engagement with the state was essential for gaining its recognition of mother-tongue education and strengthening their relationship with the state. This emphasis on working with the state is also prominent in the Diamond Jubilee souvenir book from 2011, published by JKHSS, which begins with a letter of commendation from the then Prime Minister, Dr Baburam Bhattarai. In the souvenir book, written in Nepali, the Prime Minister commends the school for its ‘exemplary’ work and hopes that this inspires other schools to follow the same path. The school magazine also includes letters of appreciation from the Minister for Education, Mr Dinanath Sharma, Minister for Women, Children and Social Welfare, Mr Dan Bahadur Chaudhary, Secretary of Education, Mr Kishor Thapa, and the District Education Officer, Mr Shankar Bahadur Gautam.

Language, Education and Frames of “Legitimacy”

Textbook writing was an important way to engage with the state effectively via its curriculum development framework. As I came to know later, the Curriculum Development Centre rejected the first set of books written at JKHSS when they were reviewed against the criteria for school textbooks and learning objectives specified for each school year. Sharing his experiences, Bikram Tripathy, a writer in Awadhi and one of the trainers for book-writing workshops, said, ‘The school had misunderstood the local textbook guidelines. If the schools publish their own textbooks, they need to abide by the criteria set out in the curriculum development guidelines and apply for approval from the Ministry of Education.’

26The curriculum framework demarcated the boundaries of what is considered appropriate school knowledge. The curriculum evaluation proforma, used by the government of Nepal to evaluate the additional school textbooks, lists several criteria for the evaluation of the textbooks. One important criterion for approval is adherence to the guidelines on the subject matter of the textbook. This includes questions such as: Do the lessons comply with the topic mentioned in the curriculum guideline? Do the contents respect national values and integrity, respect janajati identity, and preserve the languages of the nation? Does it portray a balance of traditional and modern skills, technology, and employment? Do the books pay attention to localization and pay attention to the inclusiveness of various identities? The CDC also mandates that textbooks present a balanced collection of different genres, including local stories, essays and poems (CDC 2007).

27Through this process of selecting, classifying and distributing school knowledge, the Nepali state delineated the boundaries of the ways in which certain stories and representations could be expressed as public knowledge. The Mother Tongue Textbook Guidelines also notes that one of the important objectives of primary education is to build the moral character of the student by instilling the values of national unity and democratic culture (CDC 2007). This usually translates into demonstrating that the contents of the school textbook respect ethnic identities and national identity. However, the possibility of pitting an ethnic identity against the national identity is completely ruled out. Vigilance on such issues of national sovereignty and integrity was evident from the guidelines published by the government, and in the school textbook that was finally published.

28This textbook creation process also transformed language in different ways. As listed in the evaluation criteria, local language was reshaped to include not only words and concepts that are appropriate for the purpose of school education, but the reorganization of the language through the rules of grammar and standardization. For example, the curriculum evaluation proforma also had a section on linguistic evaluation: the richness of vocabulary, appropriateness of grammar, clarity of language, age-grade appropriateness of the subject matter, and appeal of the presentation. This required the textbook’s writing team to transform the spoken language into written language, thereby limiting various forms of expression. This process also shaped an understanding of which form of a language is considered to be appropriate by its formal acceptance in school textbooks.

29After the first set of textbooks was rejected, the textbook team in the school revised them systematically. JKHSS also held several rounds of training and workshops for all the authors in order to communicate the process of writing school textbooks. The writers and editors of these books carefully followed the existing curriculum guidelines while designing the textbooks. In JKHSS, I was often told by the teachers that it was important to have Tharu textbooks if they wanted to teach the MLE program properly. Moreover, the official approval of the publication of these textbooks meant that the approach of the school was endorsed by the state, thus making it a form of legitimate knowledge. In JKHSS, the textbooks were approved on the second application. The result was three different seals on the textbook: those of the government of Nepal, the United Mission to Nepal (UMN), and the School itself.

30This wider acceptance from the state is important in Nepal, where programs like MLE face multiple challenges. Since it was supported by a Christian faith-based NGO in UMN, both JKHSS and UMN were careful in presenting MLE as a non-political initiative. At the time of this fieldwork, another faith-based organization — the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) — was under scrutiny due to alleged proselytizing while implementing mother-tongue education. In this context, UMN was cautious about this issue and presented MLE as a technical project to facilitate access and quality of education. There was a conscious effort not to stir up any potentially controversial issues such as religious conversion, ethnic politics, or political demands for a separate Tharuhat region. The schools negotiated this legitimacy by, firstly, holding the state accountable to the provisions made in the constitution, and secondly, by adhering to legitimate and widely-accepted frameworks for language education. The textbook authors also sought to mitigate deep-rooted tensions around issues of ethnicity and language in Nepal, emphasizing MLE as an education program rather than a politically charged issue.

31State officials also readily accepted the discourse of legal and constitutional provisions. As one high-ranking official in the Ministry of Education stated,

These days in Nepal there is national-level political consensus around diverse languages […] there is an inclusive discourse. It has become the foundation of our constitution (sambidhān-ko ādhar). Even in the popular media, such as TV and radio, we can hear advertisements in different languages. So it is impossible to say no to mother-tongue education (Interview, November 2013).

The constitution provides a widely endorsed framework that serves to bring various conflicting groups into alignment. In my interviews with various NGO personnel, language activists, government officials, and teachers, I was often told that the demand for mother-tongue education is a demand to make the state accountable to provisions guaranteed in the constitution, and implementing the rights guaranteed in international covenants such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People 2007. Based on these provisions, the Government of Nepal also oriented its education policies towards mother-tongue education in the National Education Committee 1992, the Higher Education Commission 2000, the Basic Primary Education Program 1991–2004, and School Sector Reform Program 2010–2015 (UNESCO 2011: 28).

32The endorsement from the state was central to claiming legitimacy in national education. In one of the conversations in JKHSS, a teacher said, ‘We realized that we could impart education in the Tharu language only after our school officially started MLE and we started using these new books.’ This was quite an odd realization because JKHSS had been using Tharu in the classroom as a medium of informal instruction before the program officially started in 2010. Nonetheless, it was only after the introduction of the state-supported initiative that teachers acknowledged it as acceptable pedagogy. The official introduction of mother-tongue education provided it with institutional visibility and much-needed legitimacy.


This contribution illustrates the process by which linguistic authority is negotiated in the context of language contact in mother-tongue schools. As discussed in this chapter, this context created a productive space where a complex negotiation of linguistic legitimacy could take place, albeit in a limited way, sanctioned by the state. In JKHSS, students were fluent in Tharu and used it as the main language of communication. However, this competence and the local relevance did not legitimize these languages as the language of education. Though the language hierarchy has been increasingly questioned in contemporary Nepal, it still plays an important role in the context of education. In this context, the school used language standardization as a key strategy to negotiate the position of the mother tongue as the language of education within a state-sanctioned space of multilingual education. By analyzing the construction of apparently neutral grammatical and lexical forms, this chapter draws attention to the sociocultural process that shapes the socially charged life of language (Ahearn 2017).

33What emerges strongly from the practices in these schools is a process of claiming language authority that, paradoxically, conforms to the existing systems of education. In this process, different ethno-linguistic communities have sought to define and redefine their languages in order to claim linguistic authority and gain recognition from the state. The discussion presented in this chapter also points out that the negotiation of linguistic authority is inevitably framed, and constrained, by wider historical and social relations. The analysis of the process of linguistic authority construction serves as a lens to understand the ways in which such legitimizing ideologies and their authority are redefined and reimagined. In such contexts, education offers a symbolic space where, as Levinson et al. describe, ‘new relations, new representations, and new knowledge can be formed, sometimes against, sometimes tangential to, sometimes coincident with the interests of those holding power’ (1996: 22). And while there might be no cohesion or consensus, dynamics in a mother-tongue school generated a process where the production of textbooks in a minority language was seen to be viable for school education.



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1 The school requested the use of their actual name, rather than the pseudonym, so that their efforts in mainstreaming mother-tongue education could be publicly recognized.

2 Tharu language is a contested category. Sonntag (1995: 115) notes that ‘Tharus are an ethnic group in search of a language’. Though Tharus have succeeded in coalescing pan-Tharu identity, they do not have a singular linguistic identity. Guneratne (1998) identifies at least nine different Tharu languages spoken across Nepal. The variant spoken at JKHSS, Kapilbastu, is commonly known as Dangaura Tharu.

3 By bad words, he meant the rude words (gāli) and forms that denote a less respectful way of addressing people (tu instead of aap).

4 Tharus are classified as an indigenous nationality (ādivāsi janajāti) by the Government of Nepal. According to the Census of Nepal 2011, there are 1,737,470 Tharus in Nepal, making up 6.6 % of its total population.

5 In 2009, the government of Nepal piloted multilingual education in seven primary schools: Sharada Primary School, Sunsari (Tharu and Uraw), Rastriya Ekta Primary School, Jhapa (Rajbanshi, Santhal, and Nepali), Bhimsen School, Thulo Balkhu, Rasuwa District (Tamang), Rastriya Lower Secondary School, Saraswati Lower Secondary Schools, Thade, Rasuwa (Tamang), and Deurali Lower Secondary School, Dhankuta (Athppahariya Rai) (UNESCO 2011). This research was not conducted in any of these schools.

6 At least five distinct groups are popularly known: Rana Tharu in the far western region, Kathariya Tharu to their east, Dangaura Thari near the Dang valley, Chitwaniya Tharu in the Central Tarai and Kochila Tharu in the eastern region of Nepal’s Tarai. Teachers in the school listed nine different varieties of Tharu language: Dangaura Tharu, Desauri Tharu, Rana Tharu, Saptaria Tharu, Chitwaniya Tharu, Deukhariya Tharu, Bhaurahia Tharu, Nawalpuria Tharu and Sunsariya Tharu.

7 Translation by the authors.

Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 3.1. Mother-tongue textbooks in Tharu and Awadi. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.
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Titre Fig. 3.2. Math textbook, lesson 5, page 5. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.
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Titre Fig. 3.3. Class 2 Tharu textbook, lesson 10, page 33. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.
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Titre Fig. 3.4. Class 2 Awadhi textbook, lesson 3, page 68. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.
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Titre Fig. 3.5. Class 2 Awadhi textbook, lesson 16, page 54. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.
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Titre Fig. 3.6. Class 2 Awadhi textbook, lesson 3 page 66. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.
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Titre Fig. 3.7. Class II social studies textbook, lesson 2, page 40, written in Tharu, Awadhi and Nepali, using Devanagari script. Photograph supplied by the author with the consent of the textbook publishers, CC BY.
Fichier image/jpeg, 72k


Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at Oxford School for Global and Area Studies, University of Oxford. Prior to this, Uma was a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Education Anthropology, Aarhus University, Copenhagen. Uma’s research focuses on power-laden dimensions of education and examines the interconnection between state, society, and schooling. Uma holds a DPhil in International Development from the University of Oxford, where she studied the cultural politics of minority language use in schools. She received the Dor Bahadur Bista Prize 2015 and Nations and Nationalism Prize 2018 for articles based on this research. Before joining academia, Uma worked in the development sector for several years.


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