Every language on Earth has its own history of evolution and maturation.
Time and again, humankind has felt the necessity of learning a new language. One understands the value of knowing another language when he or she ends up in a land whose language he or she doesn’t know.
If you ever go to China without knowing Chinese, you’d see what knowing a language is really all about. A language is the best way to communicate. No matter what, we humans have to communicate among ourselves.
There were moments in history when people knowing a foreign language were much more respected or valued than the people knowing only the native language of the land. For us Bengalis, the practice of learning English is a colonial legacy. Apart from our mother language, we have been learning English since the British became successful in colonising this land and its people.
The physical colonisation can be more cemented when one can colonise a population psychologically through a cultural transformation. All the colonising nations have done this by introducing their languages in a new land that they went in to invade.
The French, the English, the Portuguese, the Dutch -- all followed the same method. First, they taught their languages in those lands as the tool of business communication, and then, language was the vehicle to win the colonised lot psychologically.
I was discussing the case of English in Bangladesh as well as in South Asia with my friends and teammates recently, and I received fantastic reviews from them. We have seen the state of English in our country over the years, especially after our independence till now, going through various ups and downs.
One of my teammates, highly skilled in the English language, has opined that there is a lack of English language skill among Bangladeshi-Bengalis. He said the individuals who were skilled in this language are greatly valued in the professional arena. What he meant was that the value of English has multiplied more than ever before in the times of globalisation of economics and business.
On a different note, a friend mine told me that English enjoys an elite status in this country. Everyone values, without analysing our national interests, those who know the language and can communicate in it.
He sounded very emotional about how we value the existence and practice of the English language in Bangladesh.
Yes, at the beginning of the 1980s, we turned most of our textbooks, especially in schools and colleges, into Bangla in order to promote our own language among the masses, as well as to uphold the glory of Bangla at all levels of learning.
Everyone values, without analysing our national interests, those who know the language and can communicate in it
Since then, our Bangla has come a long way, gaining the status of an international language. Culturally also, we’ve talked quite a lot about the Hindi onslaught in our country.
Despite all this, English has survived here, and we have always understood the importance of knowing the language in a globalised scenario, where every aspect of life is connected with the need to learn English. No matter what, we need English in almost all spheres of life in this country; it is still a thriving global language.
To my mind, however, the English language and the people who were/are teaching it had many failures for generations. We, in this country, have a weird veneration for the language: We like it, we term it as a means of smartness, and we feel the necessity of learning it, but quite mysteriously, we have a lack of interest in learning.
That’s why I think English has suffered a serious setback here, and turned out to be a failed language. There’s a fear among people about learning this language. They somehow feel that they are or pushed to communicate in English.
Why can’t we learn?
We learn English for about 12 years and yet we don’t learn it properly. Does that mean we are not interested enough to learn it? Does that mean there’s a methodical flaw in teaching it? I myself had learned English from grade I to grade XII, but struggled with it when I went to university.
On the other hand, I learned French in two years at the Alliance Française de Dhaka in the late-80s and could read Molière without any difficulty. Of course, having no utility of French in our country, I almost forgot it. But learning French also taught me how to learn a language. Then on, I tried to learn it myself and attained some acumen in it.
We all aspire to learn the language, but somehow we don’t attain that stage required to present ourselves in the global arena. Something isn’t right in our way of teaching languages at the institutional level.
We have seen a huge number of English-teaching centres around the country, but the level of our English hasn’t perhaps improved. The British Council has been there in this country for a long long time; the UK aid agency has run a mega project named English in Action.
It seems that those initiatives had little impact on our learning psyche. The most worrying fact is that we learn a language for long 12 years, but the expected impact on our English language skills are not at all up to that standard which could take us to the international arena.
In the Bangladeshi corporate environment, most daily chores are run through English. I admire the courage of corporate professionals who get their work done in this language, no matter what their own lackings are. These professionals don’t seem a self-inhibited lot.
However, no one seems to guide them in order to learn it properly.
There’s an uncanny way in which we push the appropriate learning of English away from our masses. Making our own language a priority is one thing, and learning a new one properly is another. If we learn English language adequately, it won’t mean we are avoiding or disrespecting our Bangla.
We shall not allow any humiliation of Bangla, but at the same time, we should be able to create an atmosphere in which we can learn English, which we have been learning for generations now, so that we can make ourselves ready for the highly-competitive international market.
We might as well remember that English isn’t a second language in Bangladesh, but a foreign language, and yet it’s a compulsory subject at the school and college levels.
Ekram Kabir is a fiction writer.