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How to be both

  • Published at 11:59 pm February 21st, 2019
Have we lost respect for our mother tongue?
Have we lost respect for our mother tongue? / MEHEDI HASAN

Living in a world of two languages

“I love how you’re so deshi and so good at English at the same time!”

There is a reason why I have a sentence hovering above, in double quotes. The above sentence is a reaction, something I often face in different social situations. Many friends have said that to describe me, so Bengali, yet so good at English, as if they are mutually exclusive. As if one has to be let go in order to achieve the other.

I grew up in small towns and small cantonments, and had mostly Bangla medium schooling until much later on in life. At a time when ask.fm, the anonymous question-answer site had gained popularity, I began to receive strange comments and questions, was called snobbish, and accused of speaking “more English than necessary.” 

For the longest time, what I faced was an identity crisis, an urge to just “tone it down a notch” because of what others would say about me. Initially, they would laugh, thinking of me as some kind of suited-booted penguin in the Sahara Desert. To their great dismay, I was also the one to be the on-stage MC during college programs on Ekushey February, edit both the Bangla and English sections of the school magazine, and read Humayun Azad’s Naree before any of them had.

Situations change, institutions change. When I decided to change my major and shift universities, I was wary of being treated like an outcast, I wondered if my deshi side would be a problem. This time, though, I was welcomed with open arms into the English department. Most importantly, for the first time ever, I learned to embrace myself, and the fact that I am a bit of both.

Those of us who enjoy a little more privilege than the rest are often accused of having an attitude against Bangla. We may vehemently shake our heads in disagreement, but it is still a harsh reality that our English medium schools are unkind to the language of the brave. My teacher, whose third language is Bangla and second language is English, tells me that I am not wrong about the attitudes of these institutions. As a foreigner who had received her education in Bangladesh, she was told at school that Bangla is unnecessary, low-prestige, and inconsequential. 

Who tells us these things? Our peers, the society, school rules of “no-Bangla” on campus, sometimes, even our parents. We relegated Bangla to the lower ranks because the Radiant Reading in our bag was more important than the Amar Boi. In our English medium schools, khyat was the adjective of choice for a mori Bangla bhasha, which, ironically, happens to be a Bangla adjective.

Now that we are older, wiser, and more or less free from toxic peer pressure, we would like to apologize. Many of us in our teens, 20s, and early 30s have been conditioned to take Bangla less seriously, and perhaps, we would like to redeem ourselves. Is it too late though, we wonder. Now that we know we have been doing injustice to our mother tongue, can we not try and start a healthy practice? 

In order to start reading Bangla better, we can begin with some easy reads. Humayun Ahmed for realism, Muhammad Zafar Iqbal for sci-fi, and then we can move on to other authors like Sunil-Shomoresh-Shirshendu from the other Bengal. Ekushey Boi Mela, the pride and joy of our culture, is right here at our doorstep. We can browse the bookstalls, look through the collections, and perhaps pick up a Md Nazimuddin or Paromita Heem to read. 

Then, perhaps, we can increase the difficulty levels to Hasan Azizul Haque or Shaheen Akhtar. If we would like to improve how we speak it, we can start by “speaking a little more Bangla than necessary” at our workplaces and homes, and keep an English-to-Bangla dictionary handy. What I mean to say is, now that we know what we are lacking, we must try and reclaim the right to our language.

Whether we like it or not, language is changing, evolving, and fusing. When I was in India around a decade ago, I used to find sentences like, “It’s such a nice gaana!” strange. Fast forward to 2019, and we are all asking our friends for change like this: “Got some bhangti on you?” Code switching, like many other changes in language, is inevitable.

Perhaps Banglish will become something a bit more official, like Singlish. Perhaps, as more and more urban couples speak English to each other, our children will treat English as a first language. Some of us are terrified of that ever happening, but can we really build a wall around the borders of language, lah? Yet, I still believe that there is enough space for us to right some of the wrongs, and perhaps we can help our next generation not undergo an identity crisis in the process.

My teacher, who had no compulsion to learn Bangla, is now lovingly translating short stories from Bangla to English. Her friends introduced her to the treasure trove that is Bangla literature. Recently, food vlogger The Food Ranger came to Dhaka and rated most of our favourite Dhakaiya dishes at least 8/10. 

Those of us privileged enough to have learned English are the ones who can similarly help others experience what we have, and what we can offer them. Our inclusive, welcoming culture, our hospitality, our bhortas and bhapa pithas, our thoughts and ideas are ready for the world, and they need a little help. English, the language of our workplaces and social mixers, can act as a bridge to help us bring our culture to the world’s forefront. 

However, what are we going to convey if we do not speak, read, or write Bangla? 

As we pass yet another Ekushey February, let us question ourselves. Let us right some wrongs. Let us pick up a book, and start reading, because in a world where languages are losing their footing, identities are not what they used to be, and global voices are dictating what we ought to do, all of us, perhaps, need to be a bit of both. 

Qazi Mustabeen Noor works at Arts and Letters, Dhaka Tribune.