Ekushey February, or Language Martyr’s Day, was not merely a Language Movement, but the first step towards our struggle for freedom -- the struggle for a nation we could call our own.
This was the movement in which Bangalis understood that they would not get any better treatment from their Pakistani rulers than the that of their former colonial masters. The Language Movement influenced a myriad socio-political events later, and it is still doing so.
It is not possible to illustrate the significance and influence of the language movement regarding Bangladesh’s socio-political progress in an 800-word article.
While I, as a Bangali, feel proud of this movement and grateful to our heroes, I have a feeling that we have translated the spirit of the language movement wrongly.
Sometimes our attitude towards other languages is so hostile, it often feels as if the Language Movement was against every other language. This attitude also influenced our policy-making and this has had a very negative impact on our education sector.
The impact of this incorrect interpretation of the spirit of our Language Movement can be understood by the levels of English language proficiency in our students. English language proficiency in Bangla medium and religious education system is poor. And this is because we have an attitude that we do not have to learn any other language except Bangla.
There have been many instances when someone with a Master’s degree in English literature and language from a local college has been unable to speak and write correct English. English language proficiency of graduates in other disciplines is even poorer.
When I was still working as an education reporter, I interviewed a UGC chairman about the poor international rankings of our universities. The chairman, who is a prominent academic, pointed out that one of the reasons behind the poor rankings of our universities is the rather sorry state of research put out by our universities.
In the present day scenario, knowing more than one language might seem like a luxury, but, in truth, it is an important skill. An overseas manpower expert once told me that if our labourers could speak one or two languages fluently, our remittances would double. It’s not only the case in the labour sector, but all other sectors stand to experience a boost if only the English language skills of our graduates improved.
Respecting other languages and respecting the rights of people to speak and write in their mother tongues is what the Language Movement was all about
While I am a big advocate of educating children in their mother tongue, we need a discussion on whether the medium of higher-secondary and graduation-level studies should be carried out in English.
Whether we like it or not, English is still the language of science, arts, and philosophy. Good books on important subjects are written in English and we have yet to translate those books in our mother tongue.
And if we want foreigners to know about our culture and literature, we will have to do this by writing in English. As we were not able to translate important books on different subjects into Bangla, and, at the same time, we downplay the importance of English and other languages, there is a serious deficiency in knowledge within our graduates. And in my opinion, the prejudice towards English and other languages is responsible for this.
While justifying the prejudice towards languages and overemphasizing our mother tongue, some people try to cite Japan, China, and some other developed countries as examples. However, these are not practical examples.
The economic progress that Japan and China have made in the last few decades has been enormous. It is possible for them to ignore English, but we are far from these two Asian giants.
Most importantly, we need to understand that the Language Movement was not against any language, and that the spirit of the movement should not result in prejudice towards other languages.
The Language Movement was started against our oppressors for imposing a language onto a people who already had a native tongue. The Language Movement was against the autocratic attitude of Pakistani rulers.
Respecting other languages and respecting the rights of people to speak and write in their mother tongues is what the Language Movement was all about.
If we learn other languages for economic progress or for letting the world know the rich culture and literature of Bangla and Bangalis, it will certainly not be against the spirit of Ekushey February.
Mushfique Wadud is a freelance journalist. He can be followed @mushfiquewadud.