Bangladeshis have an enviable advantage in terms of learning languages and using it to advance their objectives
In 1994, I was living with my grandparents in Dhaka. One fine morning my Nana bhai handed me over copies of Bhorer Kagoj and the Daily Star. He asked me to start reading both newspapers and to give him a summary of headlines in both Bangla and English. In the same year one evening, he gave me a book on Rapid Hindi Learning with a picture of Jawaharlal Nehru on its cover. And finally one day, he gifted me a book on Learning Arabic for Bengali speakers. I was his obedient disciple on matters of religious activities at home, so he had high hopes that I would make him proud with my Arabic prowess. I failed miserably at this last task.
Looking back at that episode of my life, I finally realised the envious advantage we Bangladeshis have in matters of learning foreign languages and using them for our own benefits. Bengali being a sweet language, caters to both 'soft' and 'hard' sounds of the same letter. For example, it has alphabets which pronounce both 'soft T' (found in French, such as 'tout', but not in English) and 'hard T' (found in English, such as 'tea' but not in French), 'soft D' and 'hard D' etc. What I learnt very early is that your grasp on Bengali, in terms of pronunciation, accent and vocabulary needs to be solid because this is the first language any Bangladeshi born in Bangladesh would learn first. Unless someone is proficient in the foundation language, it will be difficult to gain mastery in any future languages to learn.
When it came to learning English next, it is taught as a subject in many schools in Bangladesh from the early stages and this is not a new phenomenon. Other than being exposed to English grammar and literature at all levels of education, I was exposed to the usual English language movies and music of the 80s and 90s which aided greatly the comprehension of this international language.
The third language I learnt was Hindi, the official language of India. My introduction to Hindi was largely thanks to the Indian movies and TV channels. Other than the movies and music, ties between India and Bangladesh in terms of history, culture, language are so strong that it would have been unwise not to embrace Hindi with an open arm while keeping my own identity and objectives clear. When it came to speaking, the principle which I used to follow was very simple. I always spoke English and Hindi while I was in India. And whenever I was in Bangladesh, I always spoke in Bengali and English. There was no rocket science behind it, loving a language including own mother-tongue doesn’t mean that one should have hatred towards any other language. It is common sense to speak in the local and international language depending on the situation. We Bangladeshis are at a great geographical and cultural advantage to exploit the so-called ‘cultural invasion of Hindi’ to learn it so well so as to advance our personal and national interests by using the knowledge of this language wherever and whenever it is appropriate.
During my university days in Delhi, I witnessed the rise of the call centre industry in India. Along with English, demand for speakers of other languages was high. Especially for market research and back office jobs, there was a strong demand for speakers of French, Spanish, German, Japanese etc. In 2000, allured by the possibility of getting a part-time job while studying, I immediately started learning French with the aim to earn extra money through call centre jobs. In no time four years passed by and the pursuit for excellence in French not only landed me a Diploma certificate but also earned me a handsome amount of money from my earnings from call centres to fund my travels throughout India. After returning to Bangladesh in 2003, I started teaching French in Alliance Francaise de Dhaka and also privately. Since 2012, I have been doing freelance translation projects and I have completed more than 2500 assignments related mostly to asylum cases of Bengali speaking applicants in France. After mastering Bengali, English and Hindi, I learnt French and it continues to earn me an additional income every now and then.
If more than 1 billion people of this world can do it, that is 1/6th of the world’s population – then why not us? This is what I told myself in 2008 when I got enrolled in the Confucius Institute in NSU Dhaka, to master the language the future will speak in – Chinese Mandarin.No doubt it seemed alien at first, but what happens with learning languages is that you “learn to learn”so the next language becomes easier because you get familiar with the building blocks of every language, tenses, genders and other rules of the game. The same happened with Chinese. Keeping in view geographical proximity and increasing trade relations between China and Bangladesh, and more importantly the ever-increasing importance of China as an economic and political superpower, Bangladeshis can benefit greatly if they start to learn Chinese early and continue patiently. Its one of the most difficult languages to learn no doubt, but the end results will outweigh the challenging learning process.
One language I still regret not having learnt properly is Arabic. I remember the days when hujur used to come to teach us how to read the Quran and how I used to suffer from inertia. Only if my Nana bhai would have told me that learning Arabic properly would help me prosper both in this life and in the one after this – I would have surely put my heart at it. The problem with only focusing on the promise to admit myself into paradise could not convince my young heart, leaving me with the ability to only read Arabic with vowels but not able to converse. We in Bangladesh have an abundance of speakers of Arabic, be it the Imam of your local mosque or the muezzin who may be great sources to teach Arabic as a language. So change your perspective towards learning Arabic; once you learn the language you can choose your own path – be it the spiritual and religious one or the one that lands you a job in the Middle East, you will benefit either way.
The internet has opened doors to accelerating language learning in today’s connected world. Bangladeshis are already at an advantageous position with their exposure to Bengali, English, Hindi and Arabic due to socio-cultural context. Making the best use of this exposure to these languages and by adding the language of future – Chinese, we can be really well positioned to take giant leaps ahead in terms of opening doors to new business opportunities, friendships, cultural and social exchanges.
Shehzaad Shams is a London based British-Bangladeshi multilingual Operations Director, Translator & Voice-Over Artist, his voice website is at www.voyesnow.com