Language plays a crucial role in society, as it is not only a mode of communication but also a way of life. It also bears historical, cultural, religious as well as ethnic marks. For this reason, the UNESCO has declared the Language Martyrs' Day of Bangladesh (on 21 February) as the International Mother Language Day. The UN body also opined that languages were the most powerful instruments for preserving and developing tangible and intangible heritages of mankind. The link between language and national identity has been found to be critical in building a nation, and a pragmatic language policy helps promote this unity. Ironically, the Government of Bangladesh has so far refrained from framing a language policy for the nation.
As Bangladesh is a developing country, some international organizations including the United Nations play an important part in its socio-economic growth. Consequently, English plays a noteworthy role as an international language. Thus, within the context of society and economy, English remains a language relevant for education and employment, although English language education is accessible only to a small segment. Most people, particularly in rural areas, have little practical opportunity to develop English language skills. Bangla is used as a medium of instruction up to the higher secondary level. After that, English becomes the dominant medium of instruction in higher education, while the language problem facing ethno-linguistic minorities remains largely ignored.
HISTORICAL CONTEXT OF LANGUAGE IN BANGLADESH: The linguistic context of Bangladesh region (where Bangla or Bengali is used as the first language) since the medieval era has been quite unsteady. However, the linguistic analysts have mainly discussed the physical properties of Bangla language over the years. Most of the writings on the subject discussed the conflicts between Sanskrit, Sadhu (classical) and Cholita (colloquial) versions of Bangla. Policies regarding their use were the main concerns, while other types of writings dealt with the traditional, structural, and grammatical aspects. New dimensions have been added to the subject after the 1990s. As language is a communication tool, a second language should also be put into the context, and the dimensions of using that language should be discussed where Bangladesh is not isolated in a globalised setting.
Bangla is the most widely used language in Bangladesh. There are an estimated 150 million people who speak in Bangla, while the total population is over 160 million. Although Bangla plays a central role in most educational institutions, in reality other local languages are also practiced in the rural areas. According to the census of 1991, 60 language varieties are spoken in Bangladesh. Of these, 13 languages are spoken by small ethnic minorities in the hilly regions of the country. However, although English is an important language for governance, education, and the media, it is used by only about 3.0 per cent of the population and most of them live in the urban areas.
After the partition of Indian subcontinent in 1947, East Bengal became a part of the state of Pakistan. Soon afterwards on February 23, 1948, a Bangali opposition member of Pakistan Constituent Assembly Dhirendra Nath Dutta demanded that Bangla should be made the state language. But this was rejected by the Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaqat Ali Khan, and other non-Bangali members in the Assembly. Khan's stance was unequivocal:
"Pakistan has been created because of the demand of 100 million Muslims in this subcontinent, and the language of a hundred million Muslims is Urdu. Pakistan is a Muslim state and it must have as its lingua franca the language of the Muslim nation."
In response, the Bangalis started to vent their feelings against this stance, which was quite emotive. Although the vast majority of Bangali Muslims had staunchly welcomed the idea of a Muslim state, disillusionment set in very quickly. As a result, following a long and arduous struggle, the language movement finally achieved its goal when the Pakistan Constituent Assembly adopted both Bangla and Urdu as the state languages of Pakistan under the 1956 constitution.
LANGUAGE SYSTEM IN BANGLADESH: Bangladesh adopted its new Constitution in 1972, which put Bangla language at the centre of nationalism by declaring it as 'the state language'. At the same time, it established Bangla as the lone medium of instruction. The constitution also recognised 'the people' as the Bangali people. But despite the constitutional provision for Bangla as the medium of instruction, the education system in Bangladesh did not adopt it immediately, especially in higher education.
Although the standard of English in Bangladesh is not very high, it is still adhered to by its urban followers as an elite language. Globalization, satellite television, internet etc, have exposed Bangladesh to the English language as never before. The rapid expansion of the garments industry and gradual freeing of world trade also generated awareness regarding the need for English communication skills. Consequently, English has become essential for economic purposes. In line with this trend, English was formally recognised as a second language in 2001.
CONFLICT BETWEEN LANGUAGE VARIETIES IN BANGLA: Bangla had 'Sadhu' (classical) as the higher variety during the 19th and first half of the 20th century. The intellectuals and educators often engaged in linguistic debate about the written form of Bangla, which was mainly controlled by Kolkata-based Bangalis before the partition of India. The standard Bangla variety that was widely spoken in Kolkata was developed through a process of corpus planning from the vernacular of Nadia district.
No one at that time debated about the spoken form of different regions, so the conflict was mainly about accepting a colloquial language. The debate was ultimately over, and the role of 'Sadhu' as a higher variety gradually waned, as the influential and powerful writers started writing in the colloquial language. The linguistic studies over time led to the establishment and codification of colloquial Bangla. This codification has been regularly done by Bangla Academy even in recent times. The codified current Bangla language basically represents Kolkata-backed Bhagirath spoken language.
In Bangladesh, people's primary spoken languages are the regional dialects. The country has diverse dialects in districts extending from Sylhet, Chitagong and Noakhali to others. The languages of the speakers of different dialects are somehow influenced by the linguistic contexts of the respective localities.
HISTORICAL ROLE OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE: The East India Company played the central role in spreading English in India. Consequently, the colonial rule was the key driver for spreading English in the region. By 1800, the College of Fort William was established in Calcutta to teach local languages to East India Company officials. However, it was not only the British but also the local elites who wanted English education due to its socio-economic value.
Nonetheless, English became popular among only a small segment of population who got the chance to access jobs. On the other hand, the common people received their education mostly in Bangla. This situation continued after the colonial era. While the nationalistic sentiment led to the growth of Bangla language, English remained the medium of instruction in institutions of higher education and was also applied as a common linguistic link between the two wings of Pakistan.
FIRST AND SECOND LANGUAGE: The status of English started to decline after the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971. Maximum emphasis was initially attached to the first language Bangla without having any vision for a second language, although English played a vital role as an international language. Subsequently, the government framed a law titled 'Bangla Bhasha Procholan Ain 1987' (Bangla Language Implementation Act 1987), which made the use of Bangla mandatory in all aspects of official communications, except for overseas contacts with foreign entities, where English could be used.
However, English is still being used as a language of the Supreme Court, legal proceedings, and medium of instruction in many educational institutes. There has been a clear mismatch between the nationalistic aspirations and the realities on the ground, as English was practiced by many educated people. In later years, this number started to rise as economic dependency on developed countries grew. Therefore, the nationalistic approach to language merely proved to be rhetoric rather than a policy. It neither helped develop the first language, nor paved the way for the growth of English as a second language. English was studied, but language teaching in terms of skills did not get the required attention.
Subsequently, English language teaching became important from the beginning of 21st century. A huge change was brought about through the introduction of communicative language teaching (CLT) approach. But many researchers have shown that the CLT has not been very successful. The approaches and attitudes of policy makers, teachers, and educationists, and their influences in society have often been viewed as hindrances to the development of English. The reality is that, the relevant authorities have failed to make the people apply languages properly in socio-economic, political and state settings; hence there has been little scope to improve English outside the classrooms. A huge number of English-educated adults are now groomed in various institutes of higher education. Yet, there has been a failure in producing good number of proficient English practitioners.
LANGUAGE POLICY: The Government of Bangladesh established several Education Commissions and Committees since the independence of the country. These series of education commissions have been one of the primary mechanisms for debating the appropriate roles of Bangla and English in the country.
Constituted in 1972, the first Education Commission was headed by a leading scientist named Dr. Qudrat-e-Khuda. It submitted its report to the Government in May 1974. The report was based on the socio-economic cum cultural heritage of the country. It claimed that Bangla had many advantages as the medium of instruction, particularly due to its value in developing the pupils' natural intelligence and imagination. However, despite this support for Bangla, the commission argued that English should remain the language of higher education until the colonial education system could be reformed. It also recommended that second- language instruction should start from class six and the Madrasa education system should be organized differently from other streams of education. The subsequent education commissions, which issued reports in 1987, 1997, 2000 and 2010 also supported this dual-language policy, whereby English has been made compulsory from class 1 to higher secondary level.
The medium of instruction as well as the curricula, syllabi, and text-books at the undergraduate and post-graduate levels are now mostly in English. Thus, students who attend Bangla-medium schools and wish to continue their education in Bangla must eventually enter English-medium instruction where they face a competitive disadvantage compared to students from English-medium schools.
The proper role of English and Bangla in education is one of the most debated issues among the Bangladeshi policymakers who have shaped the role of languages in the academic arena since independence. One group argues that the role of English opens the doors to greater possibilities for socio-economic growth. Another group argues that the continued use of English is unfair for the rural population, who have little access to high-quality English teaching. A third group tries to reach a compromise between the two positions. They agree that English is necessary for development, but the inequalities its application generates must be addressed.
CONCLUSION: In practice, there are three policies for three separate streams of education. English is taught as a compulsory subject in Bangla-medium schools, but most classes and informal interactions take place in Bangla. In English-medium schools, Bangla is used for much of the informal social interaction, but English is used for subject-matter instructions. And in Madrasa-based education, both Bangla and Arabic are used as the media of instruction.
Therefore, it can be said that the linguistic context of Bangladesh has always been unstable for various socio-economic, political, cultural and global reasons. The linguistic perspectives, especially socio-linguistic concerns, should be addressed seriously for catering to the current needs. The growth of education in line with global technological advancement has already provided a basis for developing and enhancing the use of second and third languages like English and Arabic. To improve the situation, Bangladesh must have a clear and cohesive policy for the teaching, learning and application of languages in the national and international arena.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.