Tower of Babel, Bhutanese Style

Posted on August 25, 2018

There are a handful of foreigners living in Bhutan, most from USA and Australia, Japan and India. As English is the official language of Bhutan and spoken by all, those of us from USA and Australia have no trouble communicating with Bhutanese. While I am studying Dzongkha, similar to Tibetan and the national language of Bhutan, I’m far from being able to communicate in Dzongkha, though my attempts that make me sound like a 3 year old trying to speak are met with great enthusiasm. Countless times I’ve been told “Sir, you speak perfect Dzonkha!” I think this can be attributed to the kind nature of the Bhutanese, the fact that almost no outsider speaks or studies Dzongkha, and here I’ll pat myself on the back and admit that Bhutanese and I agree that I have a pretty good accent, when I utter my fractured phrases.


There is one Spanish speaker in Bhutan, Maria from Chile. And as she was arriving, Gerardo from Mexico who’d lived here a year was leaving. Gerardo is good friend, he and I always spoke in Spanish, and now Maria and I do the same. It causes a bit of a stir when we are with our friends, who marvel at listening to what is here a seldom heard language. Bhutanese sometimes stop us on the street to ask what language we are speaking. Then they say this is so impressive, to hear Spanish, and that me, an American speaks it.


These compliments, and they are compliments come from a people who are famously multilingual and think nothing of it. With Dzongkha as national language, English as official language and the language of education, you might guess everyone is bilingual. Wrong, no one is bilingual, everyone is at least trilingual and Bhutanese will good naturedly joke that someone with only 3 languages is language poor. Much like many other countries, what develops into the national language is that spoken in the region of the capital, hence Spain with its many languages has Castilian,  (which originated around Madrid, and what we call Spanish) as its national language. Mandarin is spoken in the area of Beijing is the language we call Chinese, though many languages are spoken in China, all are educated in Mandarin and it is the national language. Similarly in India, the national language of Hindi originated around Delhi.  Bhutan has a similar situation, Dzongkha is spoken in western Bhutan and the 2 Bhutanese capitals, formerly Punakha and now Thimphu are in areas where Dzongkha is spoken. Yet eastern Bhutan is the home of Scharchop speakers, and these people comprise almost half of the population. Spoken by many in Bhutan, and many native Dzongkha speakers also speak Scharchop. Add to this that intermarriage is common between the 2 groups, so many people grow up speaking these 2 languages, plus the English they learn at school. Southern Bhutan is mostly ethnic Nepali, who speak Nepali, and curiously Nepali has become a lingua franca amongst Bhutanese and most can speak it and sometimes choose to carry on their conversations in Nepali, even when 2 non-native Nepali speakers are talking. With neighboring India being such an influence, and Indian TV dominating the airwaves most everyone also speak Hindi. Some friends of mine remark that their children become proficient in Hindi as they watch so much Indian TV from childhood. Then there are the regional languages, tiny Bhutan has 33 actual languages, not including dialects. With the mountains keeping populations separate many local languages have developed. Some of these are almost extinct and probably will be in another generation, as they may be spoken only by few hundred to few thousand people, and in their region many young people now moving to the cities for work opportunities, leaving fewer and fewer of the native speakers.


My friend Tenzin comes from eastern Schapchop speaking Bhutan. But his remote village south of Mongar shares a language with a few other neighboring villages that is unrelated to any other language. Called Gungduepka it is spoken by only about 1000 people. As those from his village can only speak Gungduepka to a few souls, they also learn Scharchop which is needed when they go to market. Tenzin speaks Gungdeupka, Scharchop, Dzongkha, Kenpa, Nepali, Hindi and English. His mother tongue he only uses with family members, the other languages he speaks every day. None of these languages are mutually intelligible. He’s a bit of an exception as he speaks 7 languages fluently, but the average Bhutanese speaks 4 languages and speaks them all fluently and regularly. Tenzin is no doubt a smart man, but he considers his prowess at languages to be just a normal everyday attribute, while I consider him to be a linguistic superman.


The old joke, what do you call someone who speaks 3 languages? Answer: trilingual. What do you call someone who speaks 2 languages? Answer: bilingual. What do you call someone who speaks one language? Answer: American need reworking to accommodate the linguistic dexterity of the Bhutanese.