How Common Is Spoken English in Nepal? (It’s Contradictory!)

Probably the most common thing known about Nepal pertains to its majestic mountains since it hosts 8 of the world’s 10 tallest peaks, Mt. Everest included (though that one is shared with Tibet). However, this well known fact may make you wonder, or dare take for granted, that English is common in Nepal. Is it?

The surprising thing is some say up to 35 percent of Nepali people commonly speak English, while others report as low as just 4 percent. What’s with the contradiction? Well, it depends on the meaning of English fluency used. What’s crystal clear is that English overall is on the rise in Nepal.

Nepal is a landlocked country sandwiched between two big brothers, India and China. It has under 30 million inhabitants and is considered one of the most impoverished countries in the world.

Despite its challenges, CN Traveler included it among the top 40 most beautiful places on earth, and it’s wildly popular with rock climbers and adventure seekers galore.

So let’s take a look at how English might or might not be commonly spoken in Nepal!

What percent of Nepal commonly speak English?

You can watch The Quest: Nepal to learn more about one man’s journey to climb Mt. Everest, as well as to dive deeper into the Nepali culture and people.

Reports vary about how much English is spoken in Nepal. Some say 35 percent of Nepalis speak English; others reduce this up to 90 percent! The disparity is tied to what’s meant by ‘speaking’, whether it’s minimal English for dealing with tourists or the ability to use technical English on the job.

The Nepalis aren’t exceptions to this fluency disparity, either. Even in countries like Norway, the seeming opposite of Nepal on the country spectrum of economics, power, and education, there’s a disparity in what’s meant by fluent in a second or foreign language. So keep that in mind as you consider the gap in reported English fluency in Nepal.

Note: Percentages are not exact measures. Most studies list ranges in their data rather than a precise amount, but even in cases where a precise percent is given, a standard of deviation is also given.

All in all, as for English in Nepal, you can expect that less than half of the native Nepali population speak English in some form or another, but from my professional opinion, it’s likely to be more on the lower end of the scale than closer to the higher end of fifty.

Some other things to know about the population of Nepal speaking English:

  • English is not the first language for Nepalis.
  • Most Nepalis speak Nepalese as a mother tongue, but there are over 120 native languages of Nepal.
  • English is considered the official language of trade and industry in Nepal (i.e. ‘business’).
  • The further Nepalis get from large cities like Kathmandu, which are popular with English-speaking tourists, the lower the percentage of those speaking/knowing some English.

How many people in Nepal speak English at all?

To know precisely how many people speak English in Nepal is tricky, to say the least. Depending on fluency expectations as well as evaluation tools used, the numbers can vary quite a bit. In fact, the reports from various studies demonstrate this discrepancy.

First, we could simply go by the percent given in notable reports, and this has a wide range (from the maximum of 35 percent to the minimum of just 40. So at the high end of the range (35 percent of Nepalis) out of the 30 million native populous, we could say that10 and a half million people speak English.

On the low end of the spectrum, that is 4 percent of 30 million Nepalis, the number comes to just over 1 million who commonly speak English. From my professional studies on language learners, I tend to give more credence to the low end of the range.

Something to back this up is the EPI, which stands for the English Proficiency Index. Based on test results of 2 million adults in 112 countries and regions, Nepal ranks in the lowest proficiency for English, with a rank of 62. Keep in mind this test disregards those countries that speak it natively such as the US and England.

For perspective on this test, here’s a snapshot chart of the high and low rankings, to see how Nepal fairs in comparison.

CountryRanking on the EPI
Italy 35
India/China 48/49
Sri Lanka82
Saudi Arabia104
Yemen 112
Table Displaying Some of the Highest and Lowest English Proficiency Ranking (organized by decades)

One particular piece of information from the EPI, as noted in the table above, is that both neighbors of Nepal (India and China) rank higher for English proficiency that Nepal. Why is this? Well, it’s likely connected to the poverty and education levels (and education especially influences test taking ability).

To find out how commonly spoken English is in other parts of the world, I recommend these Doublespeak Dojo articles:

Why is English so common (or not) in Nepal?

To figure out what makes English so common or not so common in Nepal, we need to look at a a few factors and influences.

Geography is both the reason English is common in Nepal, but also not so common. The mountains of Nepal is the main attraction for adventurous tourists who commonly speak English, making learning it vital, but keep in mind, this same geography cuts Nepal off from the world in many ways influencing English proficiency.

Let’s look at this and other factors a bit closer in the next sections regarding the popularity/not so popularity of English in Nepal.

How does geography make English more common in Nepal than elsewhere?

“Nepal is often called the ‘roof of the world’.”

In one big way geography positively influences the use of English in Nepal. How so?

Nepal is known around the world for its giant mountains, most famously Mt. Everest. Because Nepal hosts these wonders of the world, it makes it a popular tourist spot for the elite. (Only the elite can actually prepare and pay for these major mountain voyages!)

While it’s most certain that the elite ‘adventure seekers’ come from all around the world and speak various languages, it’s also quite likely that the common language among them all is English. Because English is the common language, it’s necessary for Nepalis to be able to speak it to a degree. In fact, Sherpas commonly speak broken English in order to do well in their service trade.

Broken English in Nepal is often referred to as Nepalese English, which is a combination or mashing of English and the Nepali Indo-Aryan languages of Nepal.

However, what makes Nepal so well known is also what helps separate it from the rest of the world, and each other. Nepal itself has over 112 indigenous languages and 125 ethnic groups, descended from India, China, and Tibet. It’s not hard to imagine that the mountains of Nepal have helped shape and separate its people.

Likewise, Nepalis aren’t very educated in the traditional sense and many don’t travel outside the country. It’s mountainous geography and extreme weather conditions related to those mountains, as well, make it less appealing for tourists not seeking mountain climbing adventures!

All of this is to say it’s equally clear just how its geography influences its lack of English proficiency.

Is English taught in schools in Nepal?

Traditional education looks different in Nepal. According to the EPI, Nepalis have about 4 years of education. This is in stark contrast to the country that ranked number 1 on the English proficiency index: Norway, which has 13 years of education!

The Borgen Project lists these statistics about education in Nepal:

  • Education in general in Nepal is one of the youngest in the world.
  • School attendance varies greatly, with the more rural and cut off areas of Nepal especially low.
  • Females are lower in attendance nationally than their male counterparts.
  • Nepal spends just 16 percent of their national budget on education.

Considering the struggles of education in Nepal, it’s not hard to understand that English isn’t a top priority. However, as Nepal works to improve their global presence, it’s becoming more and more important to include English fluency in their focus. To be clear, those looking to brighten their future and job prospects know that English is key to security.

In fact, it’s said that knowing English in Nepal is the dividing factor between a life of poverty and not!

Does business affect English in Nepal?

Nepal is not known as a business power house and they do not hold any market. However, ‘business’ in Nepal does rely heavily on knowing English.

International Business

Those companies in Nepal trying to network internationally know that English is the common business language. Thus, those in this kind of trade emphasize learning English and look to hire only those capable of speaking English.

Nepali Tourism

It’s not much different when it comes to Nepali tourism industry. Though the bulk of tourists to Nepal hail from India, it’s vital that those in the tourist industries know English, at least conversationally. It’s not critical to have a wide or vast English vocabulary, but knowing words in English specific to what tourists are interested in is a necessity.

As well, those in the Nepali tourist trade need to have command of basic English vocabulary and phrases. For instance, it’s important to know English words related to dates, time, and seasons as they would come in handy and surely be useful. Likewise, English words in the category of food/survival and money would be useful to know, as these words would frequently be used.

Can you live in Nepal only speaking English?

To be honest, living in Nepal is a rare occurrence for Americans. However, those who do, are able to fare decently only knowing English, but it’s not because you’ll encounter lots of English speakers or because they cater to ‘Americans’ or English speakers in general.

You’ll do okay only knowing English because the people of Nepal have a reputation for being friendly and helpful to outsiders, and also, because yes, you’ll likely meet natives who know bits and pieces of English as a byproduct of tourism.

Often the people who move to Nepal are volunteers who’ve agreed to be English teachers in Nepal. Rarely are these teachers paid, but they are given food and housing for their services. As English teachers, by default you’ll not be expected to speak the regional language but instead, reinforce speaking English by speaking English.

Though it’s possible to live in Nepal speaking only English, it would behoove anyone to learn common phrases and vocabulary of the region. Knowing these basic phrases will help alleviate some miscommunication and possibly prevent misunderstandings. It also shows the people of the area that you value their culture and them when you use their language too.

Where is English spoken most in Nepal?

Like for many countries around the world, the most likely place to commonly speak English is in the larger/big cities of the area. This is where most international trade and business interactions take place, and where tourists are more likely to be.

Large cities are also the spots for higher education and this too is where you are more likely to hear English commonly spoken.

Is English commonly spoken in Nepali workplaces?

It might seem unlikely, but it’s true that English is more commonly spoken in Nepali businesses and workplaces than not. For this reasons, it’s become more and more of an expectation for job applicants to speak English and use it regularly on the job.

This shows Nepal’s modern day focus on improving global relations and business interactions and how English is considered key to making that happen.

Commonly Spoken Languages in Nepal

So I’ll finish here by briefly detailing the languages that are most commonly spoken in Nepal. Keep in mind that Nepal actually has greater than 120 native mother tongues, so I am only focusing on the top 5!

  1. The most common language of Nepal is Nepali or often said ‘Nepalese’ and it’s spoken by almost half the native population. This language is also often coined a ‘cousin’ of Hindi.
  2. After Nepali/Nepalese, there is Newar, with over a million people who speak it in Nepal. At one time Newar had the title of the official language of Nepal. Sometimes it’s still called that which can be confusing considering it really isn’t.
  3. Then there is Tharu and is most commonly spoken in the Terai region of Nepal. Since this is close to India, Tharu can also be found spoken in that country too.
  4. Sherpa is the fourth most common and native language of Nepal. Though it is where the job of ‘sherpa’ comes from, ‘Sherpa’ itself is not a job! It is a culture and place, with a distinct dialect and ethnic group of Nepal, who just so happens to be be famous for ‘sherpa’ guides.

However, English does have some place officially/unofficially in Nepal too. It’s the defacto language used by government officials, medical/technical fields, and in business transactions.

The Final Talking Point on English in Nepal

The final talking point regarding commonly speaking English in Nepal is that it is indeed more and more common. Though there’s a wide range regarding Nepalis fluently speaking English, any English-speaking visitor to Nepal can be pretty confident that he or she will be able to get by speaking English with natives

However, to reduce frustration and to minimize miscommunication, it would be wise for English speakers to Nepal to learn some basic phrases and vocabulary of the region.

More Doublespeak Dojo articles about how commonly spoken English is around the world:

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, department leader at various levels and organizations, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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