3 months ago

Teaching and Learning Economics in Bangla - The linguistic barrier

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I was a student of the Faculty of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology of the Bangladesh Agricultural University during the 1970s. At that time, the medium of instruction was English. Although most teachers lectured mostly in Bengali, students had to write their exams in English.

It was not that difficult because my English was better than most Bangladeshi students. However, the situation was quite different for my classmates. We had to answer essay-type questions. I usually prepared two sets of notes. 

One set, a bit longer and containing difficult words, was for me. Another set, prepared for my friends, was shorter and easier to memorise. I felt sorry for my friends as they understood the topics fairly but could not express them in English. For this reason, they had to spend hours memorising the answer papers. 

This situation is now half-century older. Our students need not suffer from the lack of proficiency in English because they can learn economics in Bengali up to the master’s level, except in some public and private universities.

As noted above, I learned economics in English both at home and abroad. And I have been living in Canada since 1996. Therefore, I need to become more acquainted with the development of economics teaching in the country. 

I recently returned home and decided to teach the HSC and the honours-level students introductory microeconomics. Currently, I am tutoring my nephew, a 2nd-year honours economics student at a government college. Several issues have come to my attention that needs to be discussed. However, I would like to share one issue that seems needs our curious attention. This issue concerns directly translating the economics concepts into Bangla. 

Economics is a science, a social science, to be more exact. Like all sciences, theories of economics are centred around certain concepts whose economic meanings could be different from their dictionary meanings. Then, concepts used in economics might have a long history that Bengali words may not convey. This is because the science of economics we study today was developed in Europe, Britain in particular. 

Consider the term economics, the name of our science. The word comes from the ancient Greek word Oikonomia, which means ‘household management.’ 

In the 18th century, the concept was given a new name, political economy, closely related to moral sciences. Finally, in the 19th century, political economy emerged as a social science with the name economics. The name political economy has been reserved for a branch of economics that deals primarily with the linkage between economic and political systems. 

The name of economics in Bengali is অর্থনীতি (orthonity). However, this Bengali word cannot express the full meaning of the English word, economics. First, অর্থনীতি has no word history like economics as the science was not developed in the Bengali-speaking world. Second, there is another word widely used in economics which is economy. The significations of the two words are different: Economics is a science, an academic discipline, while the word economy represents the wealth and resources of a country or region regarding the production and consumption of goods and services. 

In Bangla, this distinction is not maintained as অর্থনীতি also signifies economy. For example, অর্থনীতি is a subject studied in academic institutions. On the other hand, Bangladesh’s অর্থনীতি implies the wealth and resources of Bangladesh. 

Another example is ignoring the difference between nouns and adjectives maintained in English. An indifference curve is a very important concept in English. The Bengali word for indifference is নিরপেক্ষতা. Therefore, the phrase indifference curve should be translated as নিরপেক্ষতা বাঁকারেখা. However, in Bengali books, the indifference curve has been translated as নিরপেক্ষ রেখা, which does not convey the meaning of its English counterpart. 

Many more similar examples may be cited. However, the bottom line is that many economic concepts cannot be directly translated into Bengali. In these cases, it might be wiser to use English instead of Bengali. 

For example, we can use economics to signify our discipline. We may even write economics in Bengali so that economics becomes a Bengali word like many words imported from other languages. Similarly, we can use concepts like utility, cardinal utility, ordinal utility, etc., instead of their Bangla terms. 

Our objective is to help students understand economic concepts and their relationships in Bangla. For this purpose, we do not need to translate all English concepts. We need to explain these concepts in Bangla so that students can grasp them easily and allow them to express their knowledge in Bengali. 

Dr Elahi is a Bangladeshi living in Canada. Currently retired, he has taught economics and agricultural economics at different universities, both at home and abroad. 

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