Mother tongue, please!

And so, after a long time I was in a crowd. It was at the recently concluded Paro Tshechu. 

I hate gatherings, but this time I couldn’t avoid it. I had to get the blessings of Paro Thongdrel. This large and sacred scroll is exhibited only once a year to the public. It is believed to grant any wish you make.

Buried in the mass for over 2 hours, though, while getting pushed and shoved, I took the opportunity to listen carefully (read as snoop) on how people talked these days. Sociolinguistics and communication are my research areas. I study people and society as they communicate – verbally, non-verbally, or in any expressive form. It reveals a lot about a person, or of a people.

One thing that caught my attention was the forced, and widespread, use of English by the parents with their kids. “Chechay, put the phone in your gho”. “Stay with apa”. “Sangay, be careful”. And so on.

In the days after the Paro Tshechu, as I went around in Thimphu with my life, I noticed a vast majority of the urban parents refrained from talking to their children in their mother tongue or the native language. I don’t want to make any moralistic judgments or speculate on the reasons as to why people do that. Instead, let me share what might transpire as long-term consequences of this new emerging trend and practices.

Language is culture, values, and beliefs. 

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, language is not just about communication. Depending on what you grow up with, language also shapes the person you become. This sociological perspective is called linguistic relativism and it establishes the relationship between the language we speak, or grow up with, and our values and beliefs that get instilled in our brain.

Simply put, the language we speak influences our worldviews and thoughts, which will then defines what we do or believe, or how we behave. If one grows up speaking English, one may accordingly tilt towards Anglophonic cultures. If you grow up speaking native languages, you will be exhibiting more local values and behaviours.

This sociological theory is a bit old but that does not mean that it is wrong. For instance, researchers argue that Chinese people are family-oriented because Mandarin has a rich repertoire of describing family relationships. Likewise, the Innuits of northern Canada know a lot about snow because they have several words to describe it. Italians hold their mothers (la mamma) as sacred because of the importance that their language puts on it.

Proponents of the language-thought relationship have even gone to the extent of arguing that the language we speak shapes our cognitive abilities. In a study among the native aborigines of Australia who speak Kuuk Thaayorre, researchers found that even in the vast flatland devoid of landmarks they never lose their way. This is because their language uses the four cardinal directions of east, west, north, and south when talking, instead of left, right, front, or behind. So instead of saying, “your left leg”, they would say something like, “your leg towards the west”. Researchers believe that over time this linguistic practice has shaped their cognitive abilities for directions. No matter where they wander about, even aimlessly, they can always find their way back to where they want to be.

Coming back to our situation, if we are serious about our timeless values and beliefs, and our character as a nation; and if cultural conservation and cultural identity are what we care for, then it is not only the tangible heritage like dzongs and ghos and kiras that we should preserve. The use of our native languages right from childhood is as important, if not the most important aspect of being Bhutanese. It sows the seed of who or what they become later in life.

To provide an example, in my native language, Tshangla (aka Sharchopkha), traditionally, we rarely use individualistic terms like “I” (jang) or “mine” (janga). Instead, more collectivistic words like aha (ours) and aye-ba (we) are widely used in daily conversations. My sisters and other family members refer to my children as aha waktsa (our children). Even my car becomes aha gari (our car) and not your car or my car. Similar linguistic practices can be observed among other ethnic groups in Bhutan. This may explain why Bhutanese are more oriented towards family, community and country. This sense of community, or of service before self, must never fade no matter where you go. Isn’t this something we want to preserve? Or are we okay to head towards individualism and materialism?

Language connects. And deeply.

In another blogpost I recommended the need to maintain emotional links among family members in this age of rural-urban migration and emigration to other countries. Native language happens to be the simplest, and yet a powerful tool, to achieve this. Bhutanese languages and dialects have rich rhetorical devices, idioms and phrases that keep us connected to our families, nature, spirits, deities, communities, King, and country. Phrases such as drinchen ghi phama (literally meaning “parent to whom we are immensely grateful” in Dzongkha) to refer to our King, and jinghi-labhi sa (blessed land), as we characterise our country, or Palden Drukpa (glorious dragon people) keep us emotionally connected to our King, our Land and our Heritage. This is important for national unity and harmony. For example, we have coined Dragon Boys, and Dragon Girls, for our national football teams. Don’t you feel closer to them when you hear the term?

In another study, which I conducted, I suggested that the rich repertoire of kinship terminologies in Tshangla might explain why Sharchops have, and feel connected to, a large extended family.

Tshangla has over 23 terminologies to address the kiths and kins as compared to less than 10 in English. For instance, the word, aunt, can be ani (father’s sister), azem (literally meaning ‘little mother’ and referring to mother’s younger sister), or amchi (‘big mother’ – referring to mother’s elder sister, or ani (mother’s brother’s wife).

Sinologists argue that such individualised kinship addressing style do not only serve a referential purpose but also creates an emotional links between the interlocutors. This is to say that a person feels closer when he or she is addressed by the proper kinship terminology – as au (elder brother in Dzongkha), ashim (elder sister), azha (uncle). New relationships are established or old ones are sustained as a result of this simple gesture. My favourite term is azhi (elder sister in Sha-Wang-Pa-Sum valley). The imported culture of calling “uncle” and “aunty” may not help cement such strong emotional bonds.

To conclude

The debate between one’s mother tongue or national language versus English need not be about a dichotomic choice of one over the other. Anyone can perfect two or more languages. My daughters are fluent in three – Dzongkha, Japanese and English. I speak six. The point here is that language is not just a tool for communication. It can also shape your thoughts, worldviews and behaviours – and who you are. For the children speaking in native tongue first, it plants the seed of values, culture, traditions and beliefs that will remain for life.

No matter where you are, make your children speak your native language or the mother tongue – or both. They will also be inheriting timeless values and wisdoms. It is a great gift you can give. Once they grow up they can speak whatever they want, depending on the place and circusmtances.


Wochu bhi Zhey
Selfie with Guru
The rush to get the blessing

6 thoughts on “Mother tongue, please!

  1. Wangchuk Hexzo

    I agree with you 101% , these days parents are farsighted to send their kids aboard and hoping for the best they’re making sure that English become their mother tongue however, own mother tongue 😛 is lost amongst foreign internal invasion. Even my better half is also in the same shoes 👟 and time and again have to remind of the situation. My kids are relearning khengkha doctor 🏥💊💊💊


  2. Jaga Dorji

    True… but our National TV and BBS and our radio shows which ought to preserve the many dialects are a massacre of many local dialects… it is very much English and Dzongkha


  3. Chhoeing Upel

    Uncle, I agree with you completely! Thank you very much for this informative and thought provoking piece.

    When I first came here to the U.S, I found it very difficult to call my mentors and supervisors by their first name. I had this urge to call them “ashim” hahaha! I had to keep explaining that I am not culturally used to calling an elder by their first name.


  4. Tashi Wangchuk

    Yes I truly feel the same pinches whenever I find our people taking pride of being able to speak in foreign language (English) over our own native language or mother tongue. When I see this fast track English speaking trend among today’s modern Bhutanese society, I foresee our native language or mother tongue like a melting iceberg floating helplessly in the vast ocean. Being a bilingual or multilingual is not at all a problem unless when people try to use it as a matter of pride over one’s own native language.


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