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This article was written for the 2011 International Mother Language Day, 21st February, concerning various political and apolitical issues regarding Bangla language. A recent conversation with a friend made me recall this, hence the re-posting in my blog. I hope those interested in such debates will find the perspectives interesting and enlightening.

The evolutionary chapters of Bangla have been quite dramatic and fantastically fanatical at different stages of contemporary history, catering to different needs as the society demanded. Ranging from being an adjunct to romantic renaissance when Thakur used it to describe love and love in any form possible or imaginable or not imaginable, it also went through phases of rage during our liberation when Nazrul scorned at British occupation.

Recent consecutive chapters include failed attempts at anger management by the commons against our politicians, making proper use of our much beautiful and descriptive obscenity that are so persistent in the tongues of our dialects. And finally, during this very day and time, Bangla language is going through another evolutionary or rather de-evolutionary phase that we commonly refer to as Bang-lish. Striking that proper balance between Bangla and English has become a matter of exclusive concern, which the society at large seems to acknowledge yet not attempt to amend. While some preach Bangla vehemently and make anti-English protests, some reject Bengali for English, while in reality we need neither of the extremes.

Much of our patriotism and nationalism is linked to the language, and history has proved many times that the bare pride of nationalism mixed in the cauldron with unpleasant short-sighted politics, has been a major obstacle in social and economic development. Henceforth, on this 21 February, I tread on ice, as I look towards selected intellectuals for answers on some common debatable questions regarding language and its societal stratums.

On this matter, I have had the privilege to converse with Dr. Golam Samdani Fakir, Pro-Vice Chancellor of BRAC University, Dr. Piash Karim, Professor of Sociology at BRAC University, Dr. Sohela Nazneen, Associate Professor of International Relations at Dhaka University and Dr. Zakia Begum, Head of Natural Sciences at University of Information Technology and Sciences. In what follows I have converged the opinions and feedback of some questions that I have often come across in debates regarding Bangla language as it stands today.

Question: India has embraced English as its secondary national language; although the widespread acceptance of it is controversial, it has definitely benefitted India. Do you think had Bangladesh accepted English as a second language, it would have benefitted the nation (or if it does in the future, will it benefit the nation)?

Dr. Karim first pointed out the error of the question –the fact that India’s context is different than that of Bangladesh’s:

“India is a multi-lingual country. So even though Hindi is their official lingua franca, English is like their quasi-official lingua franca because they have no other alternative. As a result any middle class child of India ends up growing by learning three languages – English, Hindi and their own language. Bangladesh on the other hand is a homogenous society; excluding the non-national languages who do not have any script (and not undermining them), Bangla is the only other language. So we didn’t develop such an inclination towards English. Secondly, the demand for Bangla was raised in the opposition to the decision of the central government of Pakistan. Bangla emerged as a rallying cry, as a political frame of reference, in opposition to Urdu and by default to English.

“I certainly don’t think there is any problem in learning English. It gives us a lot of international exposure, and by learning English a lot of previously closed windows open up for us; so there is no point in remaining provincial. I think two things regarding languages need to be balanced: If a country does not flourish in its own language, be it science or philosophy, literature or history, the nation cannot flourish in any avenue. China is such an example. The Chinese downright learn English but at the same time they are running their own language. Similarly, I think we should learn Bengali along with English for our own betterment.”

Emphasizing also on the historical accounts, Dr. Fakir expressed remorse for not recognizing the importance of English in the world economy after 1971 due to aggravating emotions towards the language. While mentioning that we should put equal emphasis on English for our better future, he also added another dimension to the answer:

“Introducing English as a secondary national language, particularly without proper measure, might for the time being worsen the existing inequality. This will be due to the re-emphasis on English as a requirement for the high paying white collar jobs, which a majority of our graduates do not possess at this point of time. However, if we can take some concrete measure to mitigate this, especially in the education that we provide, in the long term it will give us more benefit. However we have to keep in mind that the majority of Bangladesh is rural, and we have to make sure that they are included in this process.”

While Professors Piash Karim and Samdani Fakir pointed out the historical and economic imperatives, Professors Sohela Nazneen and Zakia Begum point out the educational deficiencies of not incorporating English. Prof. Sohela puts that issue lucidly into words,

“Most of the Bengali knowledge productions that we have in our country (bearing in mind that I cannot speak for West Bengal) are in the field of literature and maybe some in history. If you however move into the other fields, and I can speak for Social Science, especially when concerning higher education, the Bengali knowledge production has not yet developed properly and we mostly use English texts. So if we keep the option at the university level for students to study and write in Bengali, then a lot of the time they don’t (or sometimes can’t) read the English texts.

“So as a result, firstly they can’t access the knowledge and secondly compared to others who can speak English fluently, they face a drawback in the job market. The problem of the latter is due to our own problematic perception imbued in our society that those who can speak English properly know a lot, which they may not actually; but sadly at the end, that’s how we judge in our society. English is not only important for those doing the white collar jobs but consider those who are doing the blue collar jobs – our primary remittance earners. When they go abroad for work, they need Basic English and it is the duty of our government to ensure that.”

Question: The recent bilingual demands of our economy have adversely resulted in many of the younger generation not being fluent in Bengali, especially those studying in the English medium. Who do you think are to blame for this? How do you think this should be approached to be amended, if at all?

Again, Prof. Piash Karim provided a good platform for discussion regarding this question:

“What I think has happened over the years, is that a triple tier system has been created in our society. One is the English medium schools availed by the upper middle class society, the others are the Bangla medium and the Madrasa schools. Among these one class structure reflects the middle class people with western aspirations – many middle class families send their child to English medium schools, even if they have to struggle financially, with hopes that their children will go abroad and have a better future. There is no effort from the government to coordinate this. Some students are getting the opportunity to study in English while many aren’t.

“In my political sociology class out of 42 students around 30 are from Bangla medium and should I constantly give my lecture in English, many will not be able to follow – such a hierarchy has already been created and the underlying reason is because there is no proper well thought out education policy from the government. In regard to English medium graduates doing better in the corporate sector than Bangla medium graduates, there has been no proper study stating this. We however know that in administrative services, graduates from the public school are still doing better.

“All in all, I think it’s the policy makers who are liable for not having made a uniform education policy. At this point it will be very difficult for our education ministry to amend this because the problem is embedded into the class structure of our society – you cannot bring any fundamental change in the system in a five year period.

“However there is a positive ingredient in that there is a push for a uniform education policy. Because of our market economy structure we cannot close private education – we have almost 20% to 25% more students in private universities than public universities. So bringing about a uniform policy will be difficult right now but what we can do is focus on better accountability in public education by diverting some of our resources, say from military funding to education. Almost 17% of our budget gets spent on repaying foreign loans whereas should be are able to reduce corruption by 15% and increase remittance by 6-7%, we don’t need foreign aid.”

Building on what Prof. Piash Karim mentioned, Prof. Samdani Fakir and Zakia Begum also emphasized on the need for better understanding and coordination between guardians, policy makers and educational institutions. Prof. Zakia Begum further noted the recent media endeavors “deforming Bangla” as one of the culprits for the degradation of Bengali as a language.

Prof. Sohela Nazneen puts forth some interesting arguments in regard to the Bangla-English divide:

“Think of when our grandparents studied during the British or the Pakistani period, when much of the education was in English. After intermediate, everyone had to study in English, but that doesn’t mean they forgot Bengali, nor that they could not read or write Bengali. I can bet that they could read and write both Bangla and English very well, and that happened before we fought for Bangla – we need to ask why it happened then and why it is not happening now. It’s not right if we keep on studying just English or just Bangla – this shouldn’t be an “either or an or” option. It should be both.”

Prof. Sohela Nazneen also stretched much on the importance of parents in ensuring that their children grow with a proper mentality for importance of both Bangla and English:

“In many cases the message that children get from their parents is that English is important and you can do this and that with English; they are also constantly bombarded with ‘this is bad in Bangladesh and that is bad’. It is true that there are bad things in Bangladesh but if you keep on saying that in front of the children, they come to question what is actually good. As a result the children grow up with that mentality and don’t give much importance to Bangladesh and subsequently to Bangla.

“In order to amend the problem of the question you asked, I think you need people who can teach in both languages. We need to create that kind of teachers. In the present society we don’t have such teachers anymore.”

Question: Over 160 million people in Bangladesh and almost another 100 million people in India speak in Bangla, bringing the total to approximately 260 million. On top of that, historically Bangla carries a fantastic heritage, rich in literature. Why do you think Bangla literature does not get as much exposure as say, Spanish or French?

The replies from the professors were once again varied and gave several dimensions to this discussion. Professor Piash Karim focused on the historical associations of the query:

“The number of people speaking the language doesn’t matter here – the issue of primary concern is the power. If you look at the global power structure, at English or German, or Spanish as a language of old colonialism or Russian as language of old super power, what matters is language backed by the power structure – the master languages. Had Akhtaruzzaman Iliyas’ Chilekothar Sepai and Khoabnama been written in a master language, I am sure he would have been as equally famous as say, Marquis.”

While Professor Samdani Fakir had also stressed the historical constraints, he also added the issue of lack of good translators in our country:

“One of the big problems is that we cannot translate our works to other languages such as English, Spanish or German. This limits the exposure of our language internationally. We cannot expect foreigners to come and translate our work if we don’t do it ourselves. Had Tagore’s Gitanjali been not translated to English, I don’t know whether he would have won the Noble Prize. There is a big gap here and we need to take deliberate and systematic efforts to translate some of our historically best works, both from Bangladesh and West Bengal, to not only English, but other internationally accredited languages.”

Flowing from his comments, Prof. Sohela Nazneen had similarly mentioned the issue of translation. However, she also expressed doubt in regard to contemporary quality writings. Bringing the reference of Ga Manush by Poshuram written in 1945 which was a brilliant satire of nuclear war set in a world where the human population turns into mice because of gamma radiation, professor Nazneen is skeptical as to how many contemporary books actually expresses that quality of thinking and writing that carries universal appeal.

Overall, the conversation with the four professors provided various economic, political, social and humanitarian insights as to how Bangla as a notion and not merely a language is incorporated into our nation structures. Because of the heavy emotions that are often imbued with Bangla within us, we often ignore the various drawbacks that overemphasis on Bangla, or English as a matter of fact, has cost us. It’s time that we acknowledge these fundamentalist notions within us and move away from them for a better future, both for our language and for ourselves.

Link to Article in Daily Sun