Eighth-grade students at their desks in the classroom

Language / Nepal

Story by Ben Mussett, Hina Imam, Braela Kwan and Alison St. Pierre

What is lost when a language disappears? For Indigenous communities it means traditional knowledge, culture, rituals and history can disappear. According to UNESCO, it’s estimated that more than a third of Nepal's 131 languages are at risk of extinction. In most schools, Nepalese children learn Nepali and English. But there is a push from communities to get some of the country’s Indigenous languages taught in classrooms.

The Global Reporting Program travelled to Nepal in December 2019 to speak with the parents, educators, and advocates fighting for Indigenous languages to be part of local curriculums. This summer, the team followed up to find out how families were navigating school during COVID-19 lockdowns and discovered that there had been some surprising developments for Indigenous language learners. Our story begins at a cultural festival in Kathmandu’s Om Bahal neighbourhood.

A young girl wearing a traditional sari
Five-year-old Palijah Manandhar Khadgi wears a hāku patāsi, a traditional sari sewn by her mother, at a Newar cultural festival on December 7, 2019. The Newar people are the Indigenous inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley. This festival celebrates Yomari Punhi, an event to mark the full moon harvest. (Photo by Alison St. Pierre)
A family attending the Newar festival
Palijah Manandhar Khadgi stands with her mother Pramila Manandhar (left) and grandparents Rama Manandhar and Mukti Narayan Manandhar (right) at the Newar festival. Exposing Palijah to Newar culture is a priority for Pramila. She speaks Nepal Bhasa at home, and Pramila has enrolled her in a school that instructs in their language. (Photo by Alison St. Pierre)
Students performing music at the Newar festival
Palijah Manandhar Khadgi performs onstage at the Newar festival. Decades ago, Nepal’s government might have cracked down on festivals like this one. From 1960 to 1990, the king sought to unify the country through a strict national doctrine promoting, “one king, one language, one dress, one nation.” Languages other than Nepali were repressed. (Photo by Alison St. Pierre)
Students in class
Palijah Manandhar Khadgi attends preschool at Modern Newa English School. Since our visit in December 2019, the coronavirus pandemic has kept many schoolchildren in Nepal out of the classroom, including Palijah. Her classes have mostly been online since March 2020, which her mother Pramila Manandhar says has not been an effective learning environment — although remote learning is still a privilege not available to most children in the country, where access to the internet and computers remains an ongoing challenge. (Photo by Farah Nosh)
A teacher looking at the camera and smiling
Dipak Tuladhar, headmaster and founder, in a reading room at Modern Newa English School. Tuladhar opened Modern Newa in 2003 to provide Newar children with the opportunity to speak their mother tongue in school. Most schoolchildren in Nepal only learn in English and Nepali. But that could change. Nepal’s government is restructuring, giving local governments more control over education. As of spring 2021 the Kathmandu Metropolitan City made Nepal Bhasa mandatory for students up to Grade 8. However, the rollout has been slow. The program has not been introduced in all schools in Kathmandu, including Palijah’s school. (Photo by Braela Kwan)
Kids in class, with a teacher writing on the board
Four hours west of Kathmandu, and an hour-long trek from the nearest road, Pabita Praja sits on the floor of her classroom at Shree National Basic School. Pabita is taught by Principal Keshab Praja, who often teaches in Chepang to help students who aren’t as comfortable learning in Nepali. Along with the Newar, the Chepang people are one of 59 officially recognized Indigenous communities in Nepal. (Photo by Alison St. Pierre)
Kids sitting outside their school
Dhan Bahadur Chepang, Ashish Chepang, Shakti Chepang, Nisal Chepang and Dipak Chepang (left to right) sit outside Shree National Basic School on December 11, 2019. Students walk at least half an hour from their homes to attend school everyday, and will have to walk even further if they continue on to secondary school. It is also not unusual for children to miss classes to help their families at home. (Photo by Alison St. Pierre)
Kids in the schoolyard
Elementary students Niraj Chepang and Rajina Chepang sit in the schoolyard outside of Shree National Basic School. Chepang is listed as a vulnerable language by UNESCO with only about 36,000 speakers (although recent data is unavailable). The students here often learn in Chepang but there are not many textbooks written in the language. (Photo by Alison St. Pierre)
A student walking past a school gate
A student walks past the gate leading into Learning Realm International School. The private school, founded in 1988, teaches children from preschool to the upper secondary level. The school says it aims to create “globalized citizens,” and has long provided classes in foreign languages. (Photo by Braela Kwan)
Eight-grade students sitting at their desks
Eighth-grade students sit at their desks during a Mandarin-language lesson at Learning Realm. More than a decade ago, the Chinese government began sending young teachers to provide Mandarin lessons in private schools in Nepal at no cost. (Photo by Alison St. Pierre)
A student at his desk studying Mandarin
A student at his desk during a Mandarin lesson at Learning Realm. Students at the school begin learning Mandarin in the second grade. In 2019, the Nepali government signed an agreement with China to expand Mandarin education into public schools. (Photo by Alison St. Pierre)
The principal of the school standing in front of it
Principal Devkant Joshi with his students at Learning Realm International School. Devkant believes Mandarin language skills will give his students an advantage in neighbouring China’s growing economy. (Photo by Braela Kwan)
An aerial view of the school. It's situated in the mountains overlooking a green valley
Shree Antar Jyoti Secondary School overlooks a clouded valley of green hills near Barpak Sulikot, in Nepal’s Gorkha District. This remote area is home to some of the few remaining speakers of Balkura, the endangered language of the Indigenous Baram people. The word Balkura means ‘a language of humankind.’ (Photo by Braela Kwan)
Two students studying together outside
Fourteen-year-old Pushpa Baram (right) studies with a classmate outside Antar Jyotil. The secondary school sometimes offers students Balkura lessons, though funding for the language program is inconsistent. (Photo by Braela Kwan)
A teacher speaking to a student during class
Rann Bahadur Baram, teacher and headmaster at Antar Jyoti, speaking with a student during a Balkura lesson. Estimates vary widely, but some research indicates there are fewer than 50 fluent Balkura speakers remaining. (Photo by Braela Kwan)
A student writing in a notebook
A student works on an assignment during a Balkura class at Antar Jyoti. (Photo by Braela Kwan)
A student in class with her hands clasped together
Pushpa Baram in her classroom at Shree Antar Jyoti Secondary School. (Photo by Braela Kwan)
A student's grandmother peeling garlic in a field
Pushpa Baram’s 65-year-old grandmother, known affectionately to family and friends as Gothi, peels garlic in a farming field, steps from her home. Gothi is one of the last fluent Balkura speakers. She helped Rann design the language class. “It is about to go extinct. Old people don't have much time,” Gothi said in Nepali. “So that’s why they are teaching the kids now.” (Photo by Braela Kwan)
A student standing with her grandmother
Gothi and her granddaughter Pushpa Baram near their home. Gothi tried to teach Balkura to her children. It didn’t stick. But she still has hope for her granddaughter’s generation, “They are learning and they will probably revive it and take it further,” she said. Since the Global Reporting Program visited in late 2019, the funding for Balkura lessons has dried up, and children at Antar Jyoti are only learning in Nepali and English. It’s unclear when Balkura classes will begin again. (Photo by Braela Kwan)