The two tests my school friends hated the most were English and Math. When I was a college boy at a Dhaka residential school, one of my friends did not eat egg for breakfast on the date of English exams lest he scores less in the subject. I used to sit beside him at the dining hall, take his egg on top of mine so that my protein level went up to help me write down long-memorised English essays. Our guardians poured uncountable blessings on children particularly on the English exam day. That is our cultural take on English. We are the only nation to fight for our mother tongue, and probably we are the only nation that forgot against which language we fought in 1952. It was Urdu, not English.
Now the social sentiment has suddenly started punishing English following the general exodus of Urdu elements after 1971. English has been a poor victim of all anger, furore, and often-imprudent attacks as if this hysteria would improve the culture of Bengali as a language. Why have we started thinking that Bengali and English are perfect substitutes and thus mutually exclusive? Can we not devote more energy to improve Bengali rather than divert our whole energy to fight English like ethnic cleansing from all spheres of our functional life?
The current battle against English is impulsive and confusing. After political independence, we are in a different phase of earning economic independence where English has been and will be playing a crucial role in promoting our growth. Who can ignore the language of the globe in this age of gradually ascending globalisation? Who can ignore the economics of language when it comes to English?
America and Europe are outsourcing their call centre jobs to English-speaking countries. India outpaced China in that race. A time will come when India will give up those jobs, which Bangladesh would be able to attract if the country can develop a smart English-speaking generation. Otherwise, countries like Sri Lanka and Vietnam will pounce on those opportunities. English will help bring new ideas, technology, and familiarity with the state-of-the-art communication skills.
Our poorest performance in the Knowledge Economy Index is largely attributable to the education system and the treatment of English. Countries like Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan remained well ahead of their neighbours in that department. Their emphasis on English as a vehicle to outreach the globe was extremely sincere. After dealing all matters in Bengali, our bureaucrats and professionals are less likely to outshine Sri Lanka or India in overseas advocacy meetings. Perfection in English at the institutional level can best be achieved through state-level directives and encouragements. Bengali is our love, but English is an investment for the sake of openness and growth.
What damage we have done in the past to our education quality in the name of loving Bengali is irreparable. General Ershad even went that far to make English non-mandatory to earn bachelor degrees — a cunning ploy to pretend enormous passion for Bengali. The middle and lower middle class people felt trapped in those cheesy sentiments. But the upper class understands the economics of language and therefore sends their kids to English-medium schools, ensuring their comparative advantage in securing top notch jobs and foreign scholarships.
The middle-class sentiment of hating English has thus sharpened the class difference and income inequality. And some government orders, particularly in the month of February, to circulate Bengali in all spheres of activity are worsening the situation and confusing us on what would be our direction. The use of English in Indian academic and professional life is widespread. China had a mindset of learning no language other than its mother tongue for long, but they changed the strategy. When China is coming out of its monolingual stubbornness and training its government officials with more English and international exposure, we are moving backwards. China is doing so Just to equip its workforce with adequate capacity to handle international deals and to tap global resources. These should be our priorities too.
The economy backs the power of a language. In the 1990s, I noticed that the Japanese learning centres in Sydney failed to accommodate the rising demands of students. But the queue soon began to wane when people realised Japan's unending slump. In the 2000s, China superseded Germany and became the third largest economy, gravitating millions of students to learn Chinese. Despite this shift, English always remained the most powerful vehicle to understand different economies and peoples.
Therefore, learning more than one language has been suggested in all excellent universities. The international expansion of Bangladeshi diaspora requires elevated practice of English at home so that the second generation of emigrants can access their parents' motherland more comfortably with ideas and technology. Let us think about the long-run interest of the economy and accelerate the practice of English in academic and professional spheres more actively. If the economy does well, Bengali will stand firmer across the globe.
Every nation loves its mother tongue and so do we. However, we gave blood for our mother tongue, and that invariably justifies our quintessential emotion for Bengali. We are special on earth. Our literature is superbly rich. Are there any parallels of the words: Aamar Sonar Bangla Aami Tomay Bhalobasi (My golden Bengal, I love you)? Are there any words more emotive than these to make you tearful: O Ma Tomar Charan Duti Bokshe Aamar Dhori Aamar Ei Deshete Janmo Jeno Ei Deshe Te Mori (Oh Mother, I hold your feet in my breast. I was born in this land and I want to die here too)? Let us dig deeper into Bengali and derive immense pleasure and pride. But that does not call for a crusade against English. That is rather a twisted form of loving Bengali. And that is not what we fought the language movement for.
The writer is associate professor of economics at SUNY-Cortland, USA, and an adjunct faculty of the Institute of Business Administration at the University of Dhaka. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org