Forget English; our students aren’t even acquiring Bangla up to the required standard.” This was the sentiment of Education Minister Dipu Moni, who recently expressed her frustration with the lack of proficiency of students in both Bangla and English. And her feelings are valid; Bangladesh still continues to lack a much-needed explicit language education policy for higher education. The public and private universities remain divided in their approach to the language of instruction. Whereas the public universities are imparting complex knowledge using an unstructured mixture of Bangla and English, the private universities are utilising English-only instructional models to meet the demands of an increasingly anglicised world, in turn jeopardising our nation’s cultural diversity.
The education minister emphasised the need for teaching “soft-skills” such as communication and humanitarian aspects of education, which we are inadvertently missing out on due to the lack of robust multilingual instructional models. Research shows that the differential linguistic approaches in higher education have resulted in sound content knowledge but poor English language proficiency among public university students, and shallow content knowledge but satisfactory English language proficiency among private university students.
This imbalanced skillset between students in public and private universities is significantly problematic, and undesirable in terms of the global market. Sure, English language proficiency in the international context is a requirement, but it is of no use if students are unable to excel at the subject matter of their chosen academic disciplines. And if they know the material well but cannot communicate it in the required languages, then the chances of being successful in the international market will be slim. In other words, students need both linguistic proficiencies and sound content knowledge to meet the challenges of globalisation.
The bias towards English-only instruction in Bangladeshi private universities and the English departments of public universities has created an “artificial monoculture,” which limits students’ total linguistic freedom in expressing themselves. In such an environment, students struggle to think, speak and construct knowledge in a meaningful way. And they begin to forget their mother tongue, especially after four years of English-only instruction in university. By contrast, in public universities, English does not have the same monolingual privilege that it has in private universities. Students, therefore, tend to lack English language proficiency because teachers themselves are not trained to teach both languages effectively to the emerging multilingual youth. The last phrase is key here, because more often than not, students enrolling in both public and private universities generally speak both Bangla and English in their daily lives, which means they inherently possess a distinct form of linguistic competence. If teaching practices don’t cater to this multilingual nature of the classroom, then we are missing an opportunity to cultivate well-rounded students.
So far, the solution to this growing issue has been countered with the provision of single courses to enhance learning of the specific language. For example, linguistics studies in Bangladesh singularly focus on English language teaching (ELT). In February 2018, the UGC—in the hope to retain Bangla in higher education—included a Bangla language and literature course in all universities. While this may be a step forward, the inclusion will fail to achieve its goal unless Bangla itself is integrated into content learning. This policy of teaching Bangla as a course replicates the previous policy of teaching a language separately as an additional course, such as English for Today or English Grammar and Composition in pre-tertiary education, which has not succeeded in providing students with the required language skills for their future careers.
In light of these challenges, Bangladesh needs educational linguists who can help strategise rigorous policies for universities that aim to nurture multilingual repertoires of students. Educational linguists can offer advice on how English can be taught effectively alongside Bangla. For instance, if students learn a science or engineering concept in both languages, they will possess a wider knowledge base, and better communication skills, all of which are invaluable in today’s global world.
Strategic linguistic planning can improve learning outcomes in both language and content learning, and also foster a student’s self-esteem. Monolingual instruction creates a false impression that students who are better at English are better students, which is not the case. Rather, scientific evidence has shown that students equally fluent in both languages are more likely to achieve academic success. For multilingual students, being able to learn in their mother tongue is empowering. It legitimises their home language and helps students take pride in the fact that multilingualism is a part of their identity. It promotes social justice. It enables students to compare and contrast literature and ideas and harvest critical thinking skills in a way they cannot in a monolingual classroom. The benefits for multilingualism are boundless.
Universities in Bangladesh, therefore, need a more accessible medium of instruction by balancing both English and Bangla, to support language acquisition and content learning, and also bridge this gap between the public and private sectors of higher education. We have to first realise that our students are already multilingual, and then aim to stimulate this admirable trait. Currently, the differential instructional models in public and private universities put multilingualism at a disadvantage, and these methodologies are inextricably counterproductive. We must work to reverse this and change the education system for the better.
Abu Saleh Md Rafi is researching on the Language Education Policy (LEP) of Bangladesh in his Linguistics Ph.D. at the University of New England (UNE) in Australia. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org