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The lingual class system we must stop perpetuating

  • Published at 11:02 pm February 21st, 2019
International Mother Language Day
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Any battle between English and Bangla is a battle of the classes, of tradition against modernity and finally, of regional elite against city elites

A friend had decided to air his grievances on Facebook regarding the state of the education system in Bangladesh. The gist went as follows — a private university had awarded 33 students scholarships based on their merits; 29 of these students were  from the ‘English background’, while a measly four were awarded to students from ‘Bangla medium’. Chaos ensued in the comments section as keyboard warriors from both backgrounds decided to defend their educational pedigree till the last character. While entertaining to watch, the topic of discussion is no laughing matter. 

Any battle between English and Bangla is a battle of the classes, of tradition against modernity and finally, of regional elite against city elites.

It began with our colonizers, whose language was adopted by the elite and finally trickled down to the booming middle classes. It has come to be that Bangladeshis believe that their prosperity depends wholly on learning English as a first language and consequently being hired by multinational companies.

This is definitely a colonial hangover, since no other language is treated with such reverence. Take the example of Hindi. Indian TV shows and movies have done such an excellent job of permeating our society that a hefty portion of the Bangladeshi population can understand, if not speak Hindi. But we are quick to shun it and often hear parents lamenting about their kids’ TV shows being dubbed. How, they ask, will they learn English if they continue watching these? The fact that children are the most likely to pick up second and third languages while also learning their own (if of course, they are taught to do so) and that such lingual diversity can actually do wonders for their brains, is rarely mentioned. 

Thus it surprised no one when English medium schools and coaching centres mushroomed in Dhaka city. Organizations such as the British Council have launched mega projects for students wanting to better their proficiency in English. The reason behind it is simple — better English equals better jobs. 

An HR officer in an international NGO recently mentioned to me how her organization always favours candidates with fluency in English so they can interact with expatriates and are more efficient at mundane tasks like writing reports or creating Power Point slides. Another fresh graduate spoke of his simple strategy for landing a job — focus on your English speaking ability and the rest will fall into place. The dominance of English in our economic sectors and the dearth of English speaking employees in Bangladesh is such that employers are often willing to overlook limited experience if the employees come from the ‘correct’ schools.

And that is where the problem often lies. If you are stuck in an organization where you are equally qualified but consistently valued less than your English-speaking compatriots, resentment is bound to build up. Our colonial hangover means we tend to be more impressed with fluent English speakers than articulate Bangla speakers.

However, there is also the other side of the coin — the Bengali ‘intellectuals’ who are  constantly deriding Western culture and influence (including the use of the language) as having a ‘bad influence’ on the younger generations. 

While we may definitely criticise a language class system that puts English above all else, the truth is that English is inescapable, whether as the language of the global economy or simply of the internet. Learning English, or any other language, will not make you any less of a patriot, but if we are truly worried about our native languages being displaced by the global lingua franca, then the focus has to be on the quality of our education system. If India can equip its students to fluently speak in a few different languages, then why must it be a choice between the foreign and the local for us?