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Bhutan: Languages
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and its Environment > Population > Languages


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 official national language, Dzongkha (language of the dzong), has developed since the seventeenth century. A sophisticated form of the Tibetan dialect spoken by Ngalop villagers in western Bhutan, it is based primarily on the vernacular speech of the Punakha Valley. In its written form, Dzongkha uses an adaptive cursive script based on chhokey to express the Ngalop spoken language. Ngalopkha is spoken in six regional dialects with variations from valley to valley and village to village; Dzongkha, however, through vigorous government education programs, was becoming widely understood throughout Bhutan by the 1970s.

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. Sharchopkha, Bumthangkha, and Nepali also were used in primary schools in areas where speakers of those languages predominated. In 1989, however, Nepali was dropped from school curricula.

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." To aid in language study, the department also published a Dzongkha dictionary in 1986.

Data as of September 1991

Last Updated: September 1991

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Bhutan was first published in 1991. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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