IN the 1950s, an English tutorial agency placed an ad in a Japanese newspaper under the caption: “You Too Can Spoke Engrish”! These days educated Japanese men and women speak English nearly as flawlessly as the natives. So do the Chinese, the Russians and citizens of just about every other nation with an advanced economy.
Japanese products were a joke in the US in the 1950s. I have seen clips of 1950s American commercials mocking cheap, poorly-imitated Japanese products. These days, Japanese products are the top of the line in the US. So are the Korean and the Chinese products.
This is not to suggest a direct correlation between proficiency in English and economic development. But, the fact remains that the reservoir of scientific knowledge has been filled primarily by English language technical papers, or papers translated into English, and it is in the interest of a nation aspiring to develop, like Bangladesh, to plug into that reservoir. If the Japanese, the Chinese and the Russians recognise the urgency for learning English, so should the Bangladeshis.
For the last 150 years, the world's major inventions and innovations listed below have been pioneered by individuals in America, an English-speaking nation: photography, air conditioning, refrigeration, telephone, electric bulb, motion pictures, phonograph, mass produced cars, motor cycles, air plane, helicopter, atomic bomb, computer, laser, personal computer, Internet, smart phone, Google, Facebook, Twitter etc.
Since the English-speaking world is on a roll, it is in Bangladesh's interest to throw in its lot with them, technologically speaking, rather than fight them.
Yet, fight them is exactly what we have done since independence. After English was de-emphasised by shortsighted Bangladeshi leaders post-independence, Bangladesh has fallen way behind its sub-continental rivals in science and technology.
When our very best Bangla medium students enroll in science subjects in the university, where science is taught in English, their first complaint is, “Kichu Bujhi Na!” (Don't understand anything!). After all, these poor souls had been taught about the Bangla element “Amlojan,” rather than the universally accepted Oxygen! This is reminiscent of President Zia al Haq's bizarre attempt in the 1980s to Islamicise science education in Pakistan. Text books Islamicised a familiar chemistry equation as: 2H+O = Inshallah, H2O!
This is not how things were supposed to be. Since the British ruled India for over 200 years, we had a natural advantage in speaking and writing English. Our parents, born in British India, were fluent in Bangla and English. Those of us born after partition in 1947 were just as fully proficient in Bangla and English. The problem arose after Bangladesh's independence in 1971.
Under various pretence some leaders decided to de-emphasise English. Consequently, depending on which medium they study in, many of our young students now are good only in Bangla, or only in English. More shockingly, most students are good in neither Bangla nor English. Sometimes I have been horrified by the bad Bangla spoken on the streets of Bangladesh!
The decision to deemphasise English was injudicious. Education makes or breaks a nation. English is the conduit through which higher science and technology education, critical to a nation's development, flows. The late Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi kept the Science and Technology portfolio for herself. Lacking foresight, Bangladeshi leaders only looked for short time political advantage in pushing raw patriotism, while sacrificing the nation's long term interests.
No one is less patriotic for learning English. One can take a Bangladeshi out of Bangladesh, but to take Bangladesh out of a Bangladeshi is impossible! Wherever they may be, expatriate Bangladeshis speak Bangla, listen to Bangla songs, watch Bangla movies and eat Bangladeshi food at home. Proficiency in English does not detract from a Bangladeshi's patriotism; if anything, it enhances it.
Bengalis have a natural affinity for English. Like English, Bangla through its Sanskrit root belongs to the closely related Indo-European group of languages, as do many other sub-continental languages.
Even among Indo-European languages, speakers of closely related languages can speak each of the other languages easily. German, English, Dutch, and Swedish, for example, originate from the Germanic language, whereas French, Italian, and Spanish are Latin-derived. No wonder that the Germans, the Swedes and the Dutch speak perfect English, whereas the French, Italians and Spaniards less so. Notice how fluently German-speaking Roger Federer speaks English, whereas Spanish-speaking Rafa Nadal and Lionel Messi struggle with their English.
It is easier for Bengalis to learn English than, for example, a native speaker of Arabic, which is not an Indo-European language. I have met highly educated Arab Americans who have been in the US for 40 years and still have difficulty speaking correct English. Oh yes, I have actually heard the “Arab English” announcement: “Blease bark in the barking lot.” (Please park in the parking lot.)
With eleven vowels and forty consonants, plus numerous ways to combine alphabets, Bangla is much more difficult to learn than English, which has only 26 alphabets, including five vowels. Anyone who can master Bangla can master English. For proficiency in English, Bangladeshi students should be exposed to English from primary school through the end of high school. Studies have shown that a child can easily handle learning two languages without making grammatical mistakes. Our generation is the proof of that.
English is unquestionably the world's only international language. English is the currency through which knowledge is traded these days. If Bangladesh were to return to its bilingual roots, it will do wonders for the nation's education and development. Good English will directly link us with the world of knowledge and enable our students to imbibe knowledge from its original source, and will make them contributors to the field of knowledge. It will make our workers more attractive to domestic investors. Good English will add value to our tech-savvy workers, making them more lucrative to employers abroad.
In fact, there is absolutely no downside to emphasising English education in Bangladesh.
The writer is a Rhodes Scholar.