The economics of learning a new language | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 21, 2016 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 21, 2016

The economics of learning a new language

When we look back at the previous century, we do so today with the wisdom that is only ever afforded to hindsight. But even through the tumultuous changes that the century past brought about to the political and social landscape of the Indian sub-continent, those fortunate to have lived it, would have said that from the moment the idea of a partitioned India and Pakistan arose, the birth of Bangladesh was an inevitability.

That two geographically separate states of Pakistan was a bad idea is something historians keep coming back to, even in the context of the anti-imperial and communal tensions that gave rise to the necessary conditions for Partition. 1952 marked the rise of a particular kind of Bangla nationalism that had been brewing for a much longer time, emboldened by the oppressive and imperialist tactics of an increasingly parasitic West Pakistan. We fought for the right to speak in our mother tongue, yes, but the implicit undertones of the resistance were far deeper. We were fighting for the preservation of a culture and a particular kind of political consciousness that appeared alien to those in the West, with whom we shared nothing but the common denominator of Islam.  

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That the people behind Partition did not correctly identify the nuanced differences between the social practice of Islam in West Pakistan and Bangladesh was their fault. That we are today failing to distinguish between Bangla nationalism and Bangladeshi nationalism is ours. The Indian subcontinent is not the only place that has seen a rapid reconfiguration of its political and economic landscape. Indeed, the entire world has now more or less come under the spell of global capitalism (barring a few bastions of resistance such as Cuba). To understand the very complex effect that a global economy has had on the local cultures of non-Western countries we need to first understand some basic homogenizing facts about capital itself.

For one, capitalism is a mode of production that is constantly in expansion. The only survival mechanism that is available to it is to get bigger. Capital seeks newer and newer social relations in order to turn them into financial ones. Take, for example, the very recent concept of private education. Education had for a long time been a part of the state mandate and, before that, a part of social institutions such as the church or the mosque etc. It is only recently that private educational institutions have sprung up that respond, to a certain degree, to market imperatives of demand and supply. If there is a higher demand for a marketing degree, then the marketing department will probably be the most funded one. Through this very grotesque growth, capitalism has developed very sophisticated financial tools which capitalists use in order to manage risk. It may sound like hyperbole, but capitalism is really a game of risk and reward, with some rather disastrous consequences if (when) things go wrong.

With this game of risk and reward afoot on a global stage, the urge that capitalists feel is the need to homogenise. That is, the need to financialise capital spills over into the need to have a unified mode of communication. In an already risky game, it isn't the wisest idea to let market failures go as a bad case of translation. Globalisation, because it stemmed at the very beginning through British colonization and now through the Americans, demands that communication channels be as clear as possible. Enter the English language as the medium of choice. To this day, it is the language which is being learned by the most number of people and it is the language with which you and I are communicating right now. It might seem obvious now, given the nature of our virtually connected world and before that the history of colonization, but the fact that Bangladesh, and many similar countries like it, harbor so many English speakers is a fascinating anthropological phenomenon.

Here, we must critically look not at the desire to learn English, but rather at the imperative to do so in order to survive in the global economy. Although there have been many an instance in the history of human civilization where a conquering class has forced its language on the subaltern, causing the 'lesser' language to die a slow death, it has only happened through a direct and physical rule, of monarchs and kings and queens. The globalisation we apprehend today is unprecedented in that the hubs of capital-owners are often millions of miles away, largely invisible in their ivory towers, showing rare glimpses only when they venture out to invest in the next third-world economic zone. But even from afar, the homogenizing virtue of capital has us in an inescapable grip.

In some ways, this hearkens to the rather romantic notion of the 'global citizen' who is connected to the entire world through the magic of the internet, the smart phone and is a cultured consumer, able to purchase coffee from Brazil and carpets from Egypt alike. But even a cursory glance at the precarious nature of global capital markets tells us that it isn't so. With the United States slowly relinquishing its century long mantle of the most economically powerful country in the world, the capital reserves are flocking to China, to Russian and even to India. And here again, the imperative of utilizing language as a means for proliferating capitals has taken hold as more and more people learn Chinese, German etc. And so, idealistic dreams of global connectedness will always remain a far cry so long as the logic of capitalism is the main drive.

As much as financiers would like to think of a language such as English as only a means to an end that is hardly ever the case. When a language migrates into a new land, it brings with it its own conceptual scheme, its own cultural code and its own baggage. The proliferation of English through globalisation brought with it rather unpleasant ideological conflicts. And here, too, language and its cultural context has been used by the West, especially the US, as an excuse for a never-ending war in the Middle East, wherein fingers are pointed to the state of Islamic decay and the role of women in society as excuses that justify foreign intrusion.

But where does this put Bangladesh? The country is still in its infancy and is by now completely beholden to foreign direct investment (FDI) as a means to develop.

The imperative to learn English is well and truly alive in these parts. One of the consequences of globalisation is that it homogenizes not only transnational communication channels but also those of the nativity. (Standard) Bangla thus became the only language that is remotely visible whereas the region itself has over groups that speak over 40 different languages, not to mention other dialects of Bangla. Globalization is thus, in many ways, a retrenchment into a colonial legacy which we are yet to fully escape.

The state remains focused on the development of Bangla and English at the same time. Other languages that form an equally integral part of the Bangladeshi identity are often left by the wayside. At the same time, the cultural and conceptual schema of the English language permeates more and more into the urban consciousness creating wide disparities between urban and rural identities.

The Language Movement of 1952 is inextricably linked to the existence of Bangladesh. But we often forget that we were not only fighting for the right to speak in Bangla. We were fighting for the right to hold on to the unique identity of Bengal, which is home to a multitude of religions, languages and cultures. Above all, we fought for, and won, the right to our mother tongue, which means so much more than just words uttered or written on a page. It refers to our very social fabric, one that is now hostage to the imperatives of capital accumulation with the blessings of a 'development-now-democracy-later' state. As with any other instance of capitalism, the risks are high. The question is, can we finally let to go of Bangla nationalism and embrace an inclusive form of Bangladeshi patriotism? Only through a resolute civil society will we be able to banish the specter of our colonial past.

The writer studies at Knox College, USA.

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