Bhutan’s society is made up of four broad but not necessarily exclusive groups: the Ngalop, the Sharchop, several aboriginal peoples, and Nepalese. The Ngalop (a term thought to mean the earliest risen or first converted) are people of Tibetan origin who migrated to Bhutan as early as the ninth century. For this reason, they are often referred to in foreign literature as Bhote (people of Bhotia or Tibet).
Bhutanese speak one or more of four major, mutually unintelligible languages. Traditionally, public and private communications, religious materials, and official documents were written in chhokey, the classical Tibetan script, and a Bhutanese adaptive cursive script was developed for correspondence. In modern times, as in the past, chhokey, which exists only in written form, was understood only by the well educated. The other languages include Sharchopkha, or Tsangla, a Mon language spoken in eastern districts; Bumthangkha, an aboriginal Khen language spoken in central Bhutan; and Nepali, or Lhotsam, predominantly spoken in the south. Seven other Khen and Mon languages also are spoken in Bhutan. Hindi is understood among Bhutanese educated in India and was the language of instruction in the schools at Ha and Bumthang in the early 1930s as well as in the first schools in the “formal” education system from the beginning of the 1960s.
Along with Dzongkha and English, Nepali was once one of the three official languages used in Bhutan. Dzongkha was taught in grades one through twelve in the 1980s. English was widely understood and was the medium of instruction in secondary and higher-level schools. Starting in the 1980s, college-level textbooks in Dzongkha were published, and in 1988 a proposal was made to standardize Dzongkha script.
Part of the government’s effort to preserve traditional culture and to strengthen the contemporary sense of national identity (driglam namzha–national customs and etiquette) has been its emphasis on Dzongkha-language study. The Department of Education declared in 1979 that because Dzongkha was the national language, it was “the responsibility of each and every Bhutanese to learn Dzongkha.