The long bamboo of English

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The day which witnessed the bloodshed on the streets of Dhaka in 1952 has now become the International Mother Language Day. This honor to our language martyrs is certainly a matter of great pride for all of us in Bangladesh. It is also an inspiration for all the peoples who have been fighting for their own tongues all over the world. We can make a list of many of such important sides of the Ekushey February. But the question is if our great martyrs had come back to the country by some miraculous way, would they have been happy to see the condition of the language they sacrificed their lives for? Wouldn’t they think that they fought against Urdu in order to establish English in this state? Wouldn’t they want to die once again for their mother tongue Bangla?

Salam, Barkat, Rafiq and Jabbar laid down their lives and their movement led to the liberation war and freedom of Bangladesh. Their simple dream of having Bangla established in all stages of the state should have naturally come true in the independent Bangladesh. But what happened is the opposite. The Bengali language has been retreating before the daily advancement of the English language. The condition is worse in West Bengal where Bangla has been retreating before the onslaught of both Hindi and English. Bangladesh has other problems, too. Here Bangla is under attack through pollution in several ways. Local dialects are trying to be dominant at national level activities in the fields of arts and culture, literature and others. Standard Bengali is losing its place in many spheres of the social life. More and more English words are intruding on our daily conversations. Speaking Bangla in English accent is another rising trend especially in some parts of our media. And a class proclaiming ‘don’t know Bangla well’ is on the rise in the country.

A sigh of disappointment is always rising around this situation. Buckets of tears for the Bangla language are shed in the month of February. An educated class of the country becomes over-sentimental in this time. A surge of Bangla poems, stories, songs and writings is seen. Then all quiet on the language front in the following 11 months. We keep our heads bent before the English language throughout the year. The mercury of our love for English keeps rising in the barometer. We have been trapped in this cycle for a long time. How to solve this problem?

The reason behind this cycle continuing is that our language discussion is based on thin sentimentality. The key tone of our discussion is Bangla is the language of our mothers. We give our mothers a place in the sky banishing them from the real world in which we regularly denigrate women and cheat ourselves and we are doing the same with our language. We are always ready to emigrate to some foreign countries leaving behind our mothers, mother tongue and the mother land. We are failing to settle the accounts of our conscience and so either suffering from guilty feelings or feeling proud for being clever. As a penance and also to mislead the public opinion we make a dance show with mother, mother tongue and mother land carrying overhead—just before throwing them down. This sentimental hut cannot withstand the simple wind of worldly necessity. That irresistible push of the wind is: How can we survive and develop in this world where English is the international language!

Naturally we are hopeless in the fight against so vitally important Darwinian arguments for survival and development! In fact, we don’t need to. The language movement does not say anything against foreign languages, either English or Urdu or any other. If it were so, the essence of the language movement would be diverted. The language movement of 1952 shows respect to each and every language in this world. As every human is equal in the view of universal human rights, every language is also equal in terms of rights. That movement was against any military, economic, business and language imperialism. As no one has any right to impose their languages upon me, I also have no right to impose my language upon anyone. In the same way any person has the right to learn any languages besides her mother tongue. To learn languages is not any weakness of the human brain, rather its strength.

Why then are we talking about the dominance of English in our country? The reason lies exactly here. The English language is enjoying a very unfair dominance. The playing field for Bangla and English is not level even in the independent country. The English are not ruling us now, but, yes, English is keeping Bangla down and thus ruling the Bangalis. Just for this reason, our independence could not walk to the horizon of freedom for all.

Look at the situation through the eyes of the mind. If we imagine the state as a pyramid and listen to what talks are going on inside it, we will hear local dialects in many separate small cells towards the bottom of it. Above it towards the middle throughout the whole horizontal space in it, there are talks in standard Bangla. Then throughout the upper half of the pyramid, we will hear chattering in English. The higher of the wall of the pyramid we will set our ears to, the more of this chattering can be heard. Bangla disappears the higher on the wall we put our ears. The number of chatterers is not big, true, but they are the powerful, the ruler and the determiner of the fate of the rest of us within the pyramid.

There is a story in the Bible about the origin of languages. All humans had a single language in the past when they started to set up a very high Tower of Babel. God was afraid of human capacity of accomplishing very difficult tasks by being together. He then decided to divide the single language in many parts so that humans of a group could communicate and cooperate with one another but would fail to do so with humans of other groups. Language of one group sounded like babbling to other members of other groups and so humans of different groups could not understand one another. Thus God created languages, in fact, to hide humans’ thoughts from each other.

Most of us in Bangladesh speak in almost a single language—Bangla. So there should be no problem in understanding one another of us living from the bottom to the top in the pyramid. Yet our patients do not understand what our doctors say or prescribe, our students do not understand what their teachers teach, common people do not understand what people in the secretariat say. Similar situations existed in the past when people did not understand what the Mughal, English and Pakistani rulers said and did. They just thought them to be the owner of some mysterious power as they think now about the current masters. After independence, our rulers were faced with a problem of easy understanding by everyone and not being able to hide their true thoughts. But they seriously need to keep their thoughts in secret if they want to continue the unjust advantage and exploitation of people. They needed a language for themselves different from people’s, but they could not create it. They did not need to, instead they took two courses—mangling the Bangla language from within and using English, a language left behind by the former master.

This wall of language erected between us has made it impossible for those in the bottom half of the pyramid to understand what those in the upper half are talking about, thinking and doing. Our condition is not as bad as it would have been for the earthlings if some aliens from the Mars or some planet farther away had come down to the Earth and ruled it. I cannot hide my thoughts from you because I know only one language that you also know. Those living in the upper half of the pyramid are enjoying the benefit of understanding us at the bottom and at the same time can hide their thoughts through a foreign language. English medium schools, higher education through English, delivering treatment to people through English and punishing people through English sentences—all these are nothing but apt projects to hide the minds of the people above. We have no way but to learn some English however ridiculous it seems to the original English persons.

The writer is Editor of Biggan O Sangskriti, a little mag.

  • International Mother Language Day
  • The long bamboo of English
  • Bangla language

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