Nativity of Nepali EnglishSpeaking and writing in English in South Asia has a long history associated with power and colonial ‘darkness’
Last week, I was invited to present a discourse to English teachers in Surkhet on a broad topic “A critical reflection on Nepalese English literature”, by Bishnu Kumar Khadka, president of NELTA Karnali province committee. There, two things struck me. First, English language teaching has become an organised programme in this province. Second, this is being pursued with great spirit and dedication. Briefing me quietly about that spirit, another English academic Resham Bista said “we want to be more efficient than others in this province”, insofar as English teaching is concerned. Indeed, this spirit is very interesting at a time when the provinces and the centre are waging a silent war against the division of power between the centre and the provinces. The spirit of provincial self-decision has already started working on education, folklore studies, language and culture—all of which was both heartening and inspiring.
‘Native speaker’ was the most bandied about expression when I joined Edinburgh University to study English stylistics in the late eighties. Linguistics of the Chomskian brand were the shapers of the meta-linguistic consciousness. But the European mode of structuralist linguistics was also making headway. The meeting ground of literature and linguistics therefore was named stylistics. But the term ‘native speaker’ was used then almost as a mantra. Foreign students were advised to follow the speech of the native English speakers. Learning from their accent was the main purpose of such pursuit.
In that process, I happened to become closer to a few Scottish English speakers and imitated their accents and pronunciation to the chagrin of my teachers at the department. I loved to say ‘wee’ instead of ‘small’; ‘wee bit’ instead of ‘little bit’; ‘ge-ral’ instead of ‘girl’ and so on. Caught between the upbraiding of my linguistics teacher and the free creative sway of native Scottish speakers, I began to wonder about the invincibility of the standard accent or Received Pronunciation famous by its acronym RP. The concept of nativity became somewhat shaky. But I accepted that concept as a heuristic device developed to teach us proper English pronunciation. But the ‘native speakers’ in the colonial concept, mainly in South Asia, was amorphous and too large to sum up in any cogent system.
One thing is clear. English came to India very early in historical times and continued to expand until it came to its present state. Perhaps that is why the linguist David Crystal said English users in South Asia outnumber the total native English speakers of America and Britain. Shakespeare was at the height of writing plays in England when Queen Elizabeth granted the first Charter to the East India Company on 31st December, 1600. Speaking and writing in English in South Asia has a long genesis and historicity associated with power, colonial ‘area of darkness’, to use Shashi Tharoor’s title of a book, and of course, education.
I was struck by the historicity of English in Nepal as never before when I revisited the history to present a plenary at the Hetauda ELT conference of English Language Teachers (ELT) on March 2, 2019. History says English language came in India very early with the English traders and rulers. It came to Nepal not directly with the colonial rulers as in India, because Nepal remained outside the English rule, but through an oligarch, an individual, the first Rana prime minister, Jung Bahadur Rana (1817-1877) in 1853, after he returned from a visit to Britain and France in 1951. He was impressed by the English language and its civilisation. To compensate for his lack of knowledge in English and to make his progenies smarter, he decided to introduce an English language teaching programme in Nepal. As a result, he opened a small school inside his Thapathali durbar area to teach children of Rana families English. In 1867, the school was expanded to include non-Rana children of courtiers and high officers.
English clearly became the marker of class and prestige. Regimentation was introduced between those who could speak or write English and those who could not. The status symbolism of the English language was accentuated later when Jesuit schools opened in Kathmandu. But later, even those who had never attended English medium schools mastered the language and became teachers all over the country. The wrong practice of reviving status symbolism is seen in some quarters. But that is a wrong way of teaching language; such methods would be counterproductive because it will undermine children’s creativity in language learning.
Language teaching is related to the writing of literature. But English language teaching methodologies do not appear to address the subject of creative writing. Only students who can write English with efficiency are expected to be able to write acceptable English texts, which could include literature. Nepali English literature as a topic of discussion should be treated separately. In Nepal, people who have produced creative literary texts do not appear to have come from the English language teaching culture as practised under our system of English language education in Nepal. They have acquired good English proficiency through good English education here or outside. The pattern of their English language learning does not match with that practised in our English classrooms. However, we can include creative writing lessons in the English curricula, but it needs careful planning.
The sphere of the English language has remarkably expanded in Nepal. Our concept of English language as a classroom dharma is no longer the reality. We can see very good English text producers in the media and outside. But the general complaint is that the numbers of such writers are few and far between. We should use English language as one important foundation of education without getting into the trap of so-called nativism. It is important to understand that the concept of pure nativity in the use of English is no longer the standard measure of the proficiency of English. We live in great times, of sharing and creative contestations.