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The war on English

  • Published at 07:27 pm March 21st, 2014
The war on English

Thanks to a misguided burst of emotionalism born of sincere nationalism, Bangladesh failed an entire generation of youth who could nary put together a coherent sentence in proper English in the spoken or written formats.

In the quarter century between independence and the mid-90s, the war on English was raged with zeal by popularity-seeking demagogues and self-congratulatory intellectuals whose own children, for the record, remained comfortably ensconced in elite English medium schools at home or the boarding schools across the verdant North Indian hill regions.

By the time the then government allowed the tepid re-introduction of English as a medium of instruction in a limited number of public schools in the early 1990s, the damage had been done – unlike any other generation before, Bangladeshi students going abroad were more likely than not to spend semesters in remedial English classes, call centres were coming to India, Pakistan, and the Philippines where the medium of instruction is mostly English, and only one fledgling English-language publishing house was left standing.

Far from the times of the 1960s when Bengalis were often found in prestigious global journalism positions, most of Dhaka’s own English dailies were reflections of the utterly poor state of the language in our society.

Fortunately, things have slowly changed for the better, thanks to globalisation, an occasionally commonsensical government decision, and bold initiatives by the private sector which has picked up the lion’s share of the burden of English-medium education at every level from primary instruction to graduate school.

Yet, the demons of cheap emotionalism are hardly quiet. Not content with leading bizarrely comical crusades against English lettering on commercial signboards and English words in literary journals, these denizens of cultural chauvinism are making even greater rumblings to push back the clock.

Not a month goes by without some minister or his bureaucratic sidekick wanting to impose state controls on private sector education; few seminars attended by the cultural types are free from the obligatory bemoaning of the loss of native heritage in the evolving private higher education sector.

Left to their own devices, these self-selected guardians of culture and heritage would like nothing more to bring back the erstwhile state of things when only the super-rich and the well-connected could afford to provide their children with a modern education worthy of the world of today. If you don’t believe me, take a closer look at the current cabinet itself: Chances are that at least half the members have children who were sent abroad to get the first class education that these ministers would deny to others. 

The truth is, that for developing countries – unlike the developed ones like Korea or Japan – a mastery of the English language is one of the few readily available tools for mass advancement in the economy of tomorrow. India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Singapore know it all too well. In fact, in Pakistan’s most backward tribal heartlands, a conservative government just decreed that English was to become the parallel language of instruction starting next year.

Whether we like it or not, English as a mere subject is simply not going to cut it anymore. And regardless of the pride we feel at the United Nations celebrating a Mother Language Day, the only language that matters in terms of commerce and prosperity is that of Shakespeare and Milton.

Even in Bangladesh’s domestic economy, it is quite common today to see job opportunity advertisements openly seeking applicants with a foreign degree and an English-medium tertiary education. Those lucrative jobs in the private sector should not be the preserves only of the well-off and well-connected.

At the very least, the sniping against private sector education has got to stop. If anything, a sitting government of the day can do much better by the people by slowly instituting a parallel track of English-medium instruction alongside the existing vernacular one at all the public schools greater than a certain enrollment size.

If a government wants to go the extra mile in harnessing Bangladesh into the 21st century information paradigm, then the wise thing to do would be to get rid of all the restrictions – tariff and otherwise – on the import of books and periodicals from abroad.

Bangladesh does the motherland or mother tongue no favours by imposing a false notion of linguistic purity on her people who, as a result, get cut off from a modern world where business is done, information is exchanged, and decisions are made overwhelmingly in English.