The Bangla language: From identity to industry

Imtiaz A. Hussain   | Published: February 20, 2019 20:10:23 | Updated: February 25, 2019 21:10:24

Revered as it has been, our 1952 Language Movement will perennially be remembered for the emotions we attach to our identity, not to mention all the sacrifices made on that specific February 21 date. We will also remember the many more that were made for many years thereafter. We will notice, as we do, with the culmination of that identity assertion in 1971, how the aggressive tone that that identity search required has toned down. Sombre as we are, we can begin to divert them through other manifestations, elevating newer linguistic dimensions.

As we approach our 50th Independence anniversary in 2021, Bangladesh is locked in a grim struggle, like every other country on this planet, between the forces of localisation and globalisation, as well as the influences of the industrial revolution shifting from the computer to information/communication technologies. Localisation forces, of course, engulf and explain our 1952 capstone experiences that got a jumpstart from as early as 1905, produced stalwarts like Rabindranath Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam before, then climaxed with the 1971 liberation war under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Yet, in the 21st century, localisation means much, much more. As the Globalisation and Localisation Association (GALA) informs us, localisation ("l10n" in GALA style) involves "adapting a product or content to a specific locale or market." This is being done, the GALA webpage says, through translation, adapting graphics, designs, and layouts to target markets, modifying important materials to suit local needs, converting foreign currencies to local counterparts, adjusting standardised measurements to local formats, streamlining local regulations, and giving imported ideas or items as homely a face as to make it locally receptive.

In other words, an entire industry opens up involving multiple types of transactions, each of rapidly increasing values and attention. One agency, the Common Sense Advisory, tells us just the translation field is valued at $40 billion today, and expected to climb to $45 billion by our 50th birthday. Expected to double the 2011 value, that 2021 projection suggests an industry making more positive vibes than those typically headlining business news.

We ought to give it more attention, and explore its Bangladeshi opportunities more carefully. What the United Language Group calls "the biggest industry you've never heard of," involves over 18,500 language service providers (LSPs) worldwide, in over 137 countries. With Asia dominating the world's economic, political, and military growth over the Atlantic zone, its 2,000-odd languages (out of about 7,000 globally), suggest this industry's transactions will literally explode in the coming years. Bangladesh wants to be part of this growth, since Bangla is among the top-5 languages spoken worldwide commanding just under 250 million native speakers today, that figure has leaped from under 190 million one generation ago, keeping sync with Bangladesh's economic growth-rate since the 1990s. If not Bangladesh, then which other country can turn the perceptual molehill of an industry into an Asian, nay global, linguistic mountain on the ground?

This is where globalisation fits in, entwined as it is increasingly with the ICT (information and communications technology) revolutions under the Fourth Industrial Revolution (and even more so, with the Internet of the Third Industrial Revolution). In addition to the LSP investment field, globalisation also demands language technology/software developers, in-house localisation-globalisation consultants, according to GALA estimations. After all, the more the multi-faceted GALA interpretation of globalisation, the many more new windows of the language industry.

Globalisation, in that GALA interpretation, refers to "an all-encompassing concept" that applies to "a broad range of processes necessary to prepare and launch products and activities internationally." Those activities and processes include "multinational communication, global-readiness of products and services, and processes and policies related to international trade, commerce, education, and more." Amazingly, many of these processes and policies have been around for a lot longer time than even our own life. Yet, it took a neo-liberal environment, the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and globalisation as our everyday prayer ( or at least a favourite new term in our budding dictionary), for us to realise the potentials of what this industry can do, based on the mind-sweeping performances it has recorded silently.

In a Scopus article this week (February 19, 2019), it was noted how Bangladesh's abysmal 140th Global Connectedness Index (GCI) ranking (out of 169), means a gigantic industry awaiting us has gone virtually unnoticed. Even as the 140th GCI-ranked country, we have become the world's second largest RMG exporting country, and easily fall in the top-10 of remittance-receiving countries. That is enough to get the Bangla language industry out of the freezer. Our industrialisation, even at its current infancy stage, and the vast megaprojects earmarked for completion over the next few years, demand proficient employees in all of the GALA fields aforementioned, if not to disseminate the technical skills, then clearly to understand operating procedures, transmit these to would-be workers, and building service handlers in case the interpretations/transmissions incongruence. Clearly English-language education has been on the upswing all across the country, but that is small-comfort of knowledge on our revered Language Day. That it has itself been recognised as International Mother Language Day, releases the very dynamic we must develop farther, in the fastest of time.

One way to project Bangla abroad is to tip-toe behind our exports. For example, our RMG exports still do not reach every part of the world: China, India, Russia, and the United States rank low as recipients, while Latin America barely enters the fold. Making the case and advertising the possible products, provide the perfect opportunities to throw in Bangla, if not through the labels, then seductively packaged in advertisements in such a way as to stir new clients to dig in to the language slightly more. This is what we are doing to Chinese, English, French, German, and so forth. Once introduced as a possible language of interest (which shouldn't be hard since UNESCO ranked it as the "sweetest language of the world"), many doors can be opened.

The big fish would be to get foreign corporations engaged for the long-haul, either as buyers or investors. They represent the perfect market as new learners of Bangla, if only for business or technical reasons, through appealing schools and attractive environmental conditions. The bottom-line is clear: a vast but virtually empty market stares us in the face that we had better do something about, the sooner the better.

That would be the true repayment to those who sacrificed their lives just to give Bangla an identity when it was threatened the most. Whether we trace that back to 1948-52 or 1905, Rafiquddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, and Abdus Samad, on the one hand, and Tagore and Nazrul, on the other, among others, would receive some of the infinite gratitude their Bangalee successors have owed them (and will continue to do so). That it would also open up our business acumen, and thereby contribute to our very growth, would be the most fitting tribute to the souls of those who died yearning for a "Sonar Bangla


Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.




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