Tenzin Dorji (College of Language and Culture Studies, Royal University of Bhutan)

Mangdepikha (also known as Nyenkha) is one of the 19 or more languages spoken in Bhutan. It is currently spoken by around 10,000 people living in central Bhutan. This post focuses on the communication of COVID-19 public health information in the Mangdepikha-speaking village of Taktse, which is 23 km from the town of Trongsa, and neighbors the College of Language and Culture Studies of the Royal University of Bhutan.

Map: The languages of Bhutan (source).

In the Bhutanese context, Mangdepikha is not a large language. Two of the country’s languages have over 100,000 speakers: Tshangla and Dzongkha. But it is not a small language either. Languages like Gongdukpikha or Olekha each have about 1,000 speakers. Both endangered. With 10,000 speakers, Mangdepikha is one of Bhutan’s larger small languages, together with languages like Kurtop (10,000 speakers) and Dzalakha (15,000 speakers).

COVID-19 Comes to Bhutan

COVID-19 was first recorded in Bhutan on March 6th, and the government immediately began sharing information about the situation via television and radio, through the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS), in Dzongkha and English. Information was also provided in Nepali and Tshangla via radio. The national newspaper, Kuensel, which is published in Dzongkha and English, also proved an important source of information. Facebook, WhatsApp, and WeChat were all common means for accessing these state media services, usually on phones. 

Initially, schools were closed in Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, and the surrounding areas, but by March 19th, all schools and government offices in the country were closed. After further cases were reported in August, a general lockdown was implemented, starting from August 11th. This lockdown lasted until August 31st, although it progressed in different stages at different sites. In Taktse, although strict lockdown ceased on August 31st, people were only allowed to walk in the vicinity of their home from September 1st to 3rd, and from September 4th, people were allowed to take public transport within the district. Complete freedom of movement was restored from September 11th.

Communicating Public Health Information

At the start of the lockdown, all shops, restaurants, schools, and government offices were asked to station hand-washing facilities outside their entrances. These stations consisted of a water barrel and soap, and included instructions in Dzongkha and/or English about correct hand-washing methods.

A hand-washing station with instructions in Dzongkha.

Similar instructions about hand washing and wearing masks, again in Dzongkha or English, were also distributed by the local doctor from the district hospital in Trongsa.

A notice in English posted at the Basic Health Unit in the College of Language and Culture Studies.

At around the same time, following instructions from the District Headquarters in Trongsa, public health information was given to the community head, who oversees around ten villages. He then provided it to the village head, who is responsible for Taktse and Tashi Dingkha villages, both Mangdepikha-speaking communities. The village head provided this information to the villagers via WeChat, in Mangdepikha. About half the villagers have access to WeChat, so information also spread through face-to-face interaction.

Public health information was also communicated by De-Suung (བདེ་སྲུང) volunteers. As per the command of His Majesty The King, the De-Suung Integrated Training Programme was instituted in 2011 to be a value-based personal development program, and to assist in dealing with public health issues and emergencies such as natural disasters. Such volunteers came to the village to inform people to wear masks. They also patrolled around the university and nearby shops to ensure that health protocols were being followed. These volunteers typically spoke to Taktse villagers in Dzongkha, but some of them were also able to communicate with local shopkeepers in Tshangla and Nepali.

De-Suung volunteers distribute supplies. Rations were provided to villagers throughout the lockdown, because they were unable to go shopping themselves.

Despite the numerous venues for communicating public health information, television has been the most common venue for consuming this information. Every evening at 8pm, the BBS broadcasts an update on the COVID-19 pandemic in Dzongkha, and in English at 9pm. There are also usually two Bhutanese movies in Dzongkha per day which are repeated at night, and these sometimes include films not only about public health, but other information related to the pandemic, such as how to combat domestic violence. These movies have been very popular and frequently become the topic of conversation amongst villagers.

Language Matters

The above discussion shows that villagers mostly received public health information in Dzongkha and English. Only limited information was provided in the language they know best—Mangdepikha. There was a great deal of confusion initially, partly due to the novelty of the situation and the ad hoc, rapidly-changing nature of public health policies and practices. Confusion was also due to the use of novel terms in Dzongkha that villagers did not know, such as the term for lockdown, dodrul kagdam (འགྲོ་འགྲུལ་བཀག་དམ), which villagers mostly understood to mean a restriction on mobility.

Villagers were particularly confused about how to undertake farm work under lockdown. Some initially thought that they could work in their gardens and fields so long as they did not go far from the village. They then went to work in groups in the fields. However, it was later clarified that they could only work in their garden if it was located apart from others, and fields if they didn’t invite helpers from other families, so that they could maintain physical distance.

Having information available in Mangdepikha helped clarify points of confusion like this for villagers. Although they understood the broad message as conveyed in Dzongkha and English, having access to information in Mangdepikha helped them understand the plans in detail, and thus also helped them to comply with them. In this way, villagers were able to do their part in protecting public health.  

Although I have not been able to confirm, I assume that a similar situation was also found for Bhutan’s other ‘larger small languages,’ where public health information in Dzongkha and English got the main message across, but some clarification in people’s mother tongue was also necessary. We therefore see that in a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important that all languages, large and small, are mobilized. This ensures that information is communicated clearly and everybody’s well-being is equally ensured.