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Dzongkha : Why Dzongkha is losing out to English
Learning Dzongkha takes more time than English at the initial stage
In the beginning, when modern education system began in Bhutan, the medium of instruction was Hindi. English and Dzongkha took over sometime in 1966. Four decades later most Bhutanese literates prefer to speak, read and write more in English than in Dzongkha.
According to the principal of institute of language and culture studies (ILCS) in Semtokha many reasons could be attributed to what he calls the 'losing battle'; Dzongkha is losing out to English.

Presenting his paper "Difficulty in teaching Dzongkha in an English medium system" in the international seminar on Bhutanese studies, Lungtaen Gyatso said that among other reasons, most students found Dzongkha a difficult subject. "Dzongkha seems difficult not because it is a difficult subject," he said. "The mind set is so strong that Dzongkha is compelled to appear difficult even though it is not so."

Lungtaen Gyatso, principal of institute of language and culture studies (ILCS) in Semtokha, said that prior to the introduction of modern education system in the country, monastic institutions strictly followed Dzongkha as a medium of instruction as much as speaking Dzongkha was customary within the four walls of Dzongs. But as modern schooling system progressed the standard of English also began to take a noticeable stride with the introduction of modern areas of studies like science, mathematics, geography and history.

"Over the years English and English-related subjects kept on adding while Dzongkha did not see much of a substantial change."

Dzongkha Dzongkha literates at a glance
About 28 percent of the total population is native Dzongkha speakers.
About 65 percent of the population speaks Dzongkha.
About 60 percent of the population can read and speak Dzongkha.
About 55 percent of the population can read, write and speak basic Dzongkha.
About 40 percent of the population can read, write and speak Dzongkha fluently.
About five percent of the population can read, write and speak dzongkha professionally.

Lungtaen Gyatso's paper states that the subject ratio between English and Dzongkha and their instructional periods is 6:2 throughout the country except at the ILCS where it is 2:4. Of 2,880 days during a student's average 16 years schooling, 2,529 days are allocated for English and English-related subjects while only 351 days are allocated for Dzongkha. "Yet people expect the standard of Dzongkha to be at par with English which is impossible in such a situation," he said.

On the other hand, although Dzongkha is a major subject in schools, according to Lungtaen Gyatso, the quest of knowing it becomes far less significant than the compulsion to pass in it. He said that despite studying dzongkha for about 11 to 12 years in schools, majority of the students were unable to write without many mistakes and that the standard of Dzongkha was far poor than that of English.

Lesser scope and opportunities and inevitable demand for English also discouraged students from learning Dzongkha seriously. About 95 percent of the school children took English or English-related streams and only five percent took Dzongkha as their main mode of study after the tenth grade. Also the demand for English literates against Dzongkha literates was very high in almost all the work places both public and private. "Today people are not sure of what concrete advantages they can avail from the knowledge of Dzongkha," he said. "So when there is a choice between the two, people naturally go for English."

Although Lungtaen Gyatso argued that Dzongkha as a language is not difficult, he said that orthographically, Dzongkha is more complicated to learn than English given its complex syllable formation which requires a firm foundation right from the beginning. "It is not that Dzongkha is difficult than English rather it is just opposite," he said. "But learning basics of Dzongkha takes more time than that of English. Once one has a sound foundation of the basics mastering Dzongkha is easier than mastering English." For example, a beginner English learner can learn (and is taught) construction of different words immediately such as a-p-p-l-e=apple.

But in Dzongkha there are so many other intricate steps before a learner is ready to construct words. "The different aspects of letter combination take quite a good deal of time to digest. This is where the learning pace of Dzongkha becomes slow and takes more time than learning English in the initial stage," he said. "The Dzongkha teaching/learning has overlooked this crucial difference and has tried to adopt the same English teaching method to teach Dzongkha."

Considering various factors against Dzongkha becoming at par with English, Lungtaen Gyatso says that the possibility of considering Dzongkha as the medium of instruction for technical subject areas is very vague at least in the near future. He says that study areas like science, geography, and mathematics cannot be taught in dzongkha since it cannot handle these technical subjects and that Dzongkha does not have a major share in the Bhutanese information world.

The author suggests a radical shift in the teaching approach of Dzongkha. "We have to use a very scientific and a systematic way of teaching the subject to the students," he said. This means going back to the conventional way of teaching "where word by word and syllable by syllable sort of recitation existed". "At the moment, the methodologies in teaching English and Dzongkha are the same. But Dzongkha is completely different from English, so when the culture differs the approach of teaching should also be different," he said. He also suggested increasing contact hours in schools, reinforcing effective assessment and evaluation encouraging use of Dzongkha in offices and most importantly creating a Dzongkha atmosphere.

With the kind of education system that is in place in the Kingdom, English will remain in the forefront, said Lungtaen Gyatso, always ahead of the national language. "Efforts should be made to enable Dzongkha receive more importance because every native language is the best medium of communications to relay local and indigenous thoughts and values," he said. "Dzongkha is a language of Bhutanese religion, philosophy and culture and no language can better understand and interpret what is unique to Bhutan."


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