How English gives you an unfair advantage

What is the common metric used to judge a job applicant, a prospective partner, or a South Asian cricketer after a match? Their fluency in English.

English is often called the lingua franca of the modern world, as close as we've gotten to a universal language. That there is immense demand for English proficiency is obvious to anyone who has come to Dhaka. Advertisements of educational institutions, online education platforms and specific training institutions promising improvement in English within a short period of time cover every kind of surface in public spaces in the form of bright yellow posters.

The need for English seems ubiquitous in Bangladesh. Jobs require it, and universities use it as a means to not just judge who gets a scholarship but even decides who gets admission in many circumstances. In a study carried out by Centre for Policy Dialogue and the Bangladesh office of the German social development organisation Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 46 percent of employers claimed to be unable to find appropriately skilled graduates, with low English proficiency being one of the chief issues.

The pervasiveness of the benefits provided by the ability to speak English, from increased geographical mobility (think people being denied visas for inadequate language skills) to social mobility (recall fear of judgement and aforementioned study) are undoubtable. However, what often gets lost in this race to learn English is the consideration of whether this is desirable.

The sheer size of England's colonial empire is a testament to the influence it wielded back then. The fact that one of the chief sources of culture cringe here involves people of our country speaking English poorly with foreigners is a testament to how colonial practices have influenced us to this day.

Students might be familiar with the infamous Minute on Education (1835) penned by Thomas Babbington Macaulay where he stated "it is universally felt that the Sanskrit and Arabic are languages the knowledge of which does not compensate for the trouble of acquiring them" and "a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia". This is merely one of the many ways in which English slowly came to be dominant. With the case of Bangladesh, the matter takes on a deeper note with the prominent issue of language in the struggle for independence.

However, the fact remains that acquiring English language skills has become almost essential. The point isn't to feel guilt regarding the learning of a language, but rather to be aware of how it came to attain the power it has in the modern world. English has not come to occupy the position it has today in an innocent manner, and to be unaware of this creates conditions where we repeat the mistakes made by colonisers.

Recognising this is imperative, not just for understanding the necessity of learning and preserving other languages, but also to prevent us from walking on the same unfortunate paths already carved out in history.


TBS News (December 4, 2021). 46% employers do not get the skills they want: Study

Matilda sincerely believes it is always other people's fault. Tell her she's right at [email protected]


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