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Reflections from Bhutan on Global Language Advocacy Day

By Tashi Tshewang (Bhutan Oral Literature Project)

Global Language Advocacy Day is celebrated every year on February 22nd, helping to bring our attention to one of the indispensable features of human existence: language. In this essay, I want to offer some reflections on this day from Bhutan, based on my work with the Bhutan Oral Literature Project.

Global Language Advocacy Day day provides an opportunity to reflect on the importance of language to human survival, and how we can best address the challenges faced by minority languages. The day also helps us realize the role of language in shaping human history, the medium of expression, and the means to address challenges in the overly-homogenous society that the world is moving towards, as well as the steps needed to advocate for a role for every one of humanity's languages.

Throughout human history, language has enhanced human abilities. It has helped build civilizations and helped propel human innovation and discovery. Language helped bring people to resolve issues through dialogue and consensus, which are the foundations for human civilization. Language has also helped build solidarity and brought societies and people together irrespective of cultural, geographical, and social barriers. Therefore, language has acted as a medium of human progress and community vitality.

Language has also acted as a medium of human expression. It helps to communicate the raw feelings of a poet, a writer, and individuals who inspire to better human conditions through change. Language is thereby an empowering tool for those who lack social or political support. For instance, the story of Pema Tshewang Tashi, shared through a poem, helped narrate the emotions of a person torn between the obligations of a family man and a soldier of Medieval Bhutan. Similarly, in the poem written by Bhutan’s Fourth Desi (Deb Raja) Gyalsey Tenzin Rabgay, His Holiness shared a narrative on his conflicting roles of political leader and a religious personality. This poem aids in our understanding of the social and political environment of Bhutan in the 17th century, when the country first embarked on its journey towards unification and statehood. Thereby, language plays an active part in better understanding our history. Therefore, it is also of paramount importance to engage people and raise their understanding of the importance of preserving and promoting language.

Raising language awareness is the responsibility of each individual and of the global community. Every stakeholder has the potential to contribute in a small way that can lead to a significant, impactful result. If you are a parent, you are also a stakeholder in this process. By teaching your children your mother tongue and speaking it with them, you not only pass on your knowledge and experience but also equip them with cognitive abilities to undertake various endeavors.

In this light, I would like to mention the initiatives undertaken by the Bhutan Oral Literature Project (BOLP). Charity Reynolds Appell (also Director of Firebird Foundation, USA) started BOLP in 2010 with a vision dedicated to the long-term documentation and rejuvenation of the languages, cultures, and traditional ecological knowledge of Bhutan. BOLP recruits local individuals belonging to communities who speak endangered languages, such as Brokkat and 'Olep. The Project also recruits local individuals from communities that speak endangered dialects. So far, BOLP has successfully collected materials from 15 of the 19 languages in Bhutan, including Dakpa, Dzala, Brokkat, Brokpa, Chali, Gongdup, Monpa, Kheng, Dzongkha, 'Olep, Kurtöp, Tang, Laya, Ada, and Lhop.

BOLP has also taken on the task of revitalizing some languages. For example, the 'Olep language is spoken by only two individuals. BOLP has initiated a project to preserve and promote the 'Olep language. To achieve this, BOLP has documented 'Olep, ritual ceremonies, ecological knowledge, culture and farming practice, songs and poems, story and history, and the aquatic world in the 'Olep language, and is now in the process of translating and transcribing it. The goal isto revive 'Olep among the younger generations in Rukha, preserving the cultural heritage and social practices of the 'Olep-speaking community.

I would also like to mention that with the homogenization of language, either through legislative processes or through other means such as social media, televisions, and the internet there will be a need for more organizations such as BOLP, and like-minded individuals who dedicate their time and resources to this endeavor. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, governmental and non governmental entities have resorted to forceful measuresto diminish linguistic diversity and disregard the rights of language speakers. The government institutions with non-government actors have forced native speakers to embrace dominant languages. In some countries, language is politically weaponized to garner electoral votes and obtain political support from voters.

Similarly, speakers of language belonging to minority groups are stigmatized and rarely given legal platforms to communicate in their mother tongue. Additionally, the rise of nationalism across the globe has also limited opportunities for minority languages. Thus, people belonging to such groups also have fewer options for political participation. Therefore, the lack of linguistic diversity can diminish the vibrancy and inclusiveness of a community and gradually strip individuals of their ability to express themselves and deny them the pleasure of communication.

In conclusion, language is a crucial aspect of the human experience. It serves as a vital tool for communication, understanding, and empowerment and plays a central role in shaping our thoughts, beliefs, and perceptions of the world. Therefore, it is important to prioritize the preservation and promotion of the language. With various attempts to undermine language diversity for political purposes, Global Language Advocacy Day is increasingly relevant and significant in today's world.

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