Reflections on language

Syed Saad Andaleeb

February 21 returns to us each year with the solemn refrain <>Amaar Bhaiyer Rokte Rangano<>… to remind us of our blood-soaked history, the audacity of those who wanted to wipe out Bangla from the heart and soul of the Bengalis, and the struggles and sacrifices of those brave stalwarts who stood their ground resolutely to resist a contemptuous leadership's bellicose intent to impose a foreign language upon us that ultimately led to the disintegration of one nation and the birth of another. In one sense we owe a debt of gratitude to the language movement that ultimately transformed itself into a liberation movement to give us a unique place and identity.

With such a glorious history and with liberation achieved, where the Bangla language played a powerful political role, it is important to look to the future. Since language has deep implications for the progress of a nation, the pertinent question today is how to harness language as a powerful tool for economic liberty the ability to pursue one's dreams.

The economic issue is important because Bangladesh has a large and growing population. Estimates are that there are now about 150 million people and these numbers are expected to grow to 250 million before stabilizing. These people will need jobs in and of the future; the alternative is social turmoil that needs little elaboration. But where will the jobs come from?

If we tie the above situation to global demographic changes, it may be noted that many developed countries are aging quickly and declining in population size. According to one source, Europe's population could decline by millions in another decade. It is possible that a variety of opportunities could be availed by a skilled workforce from Bangladesh in these countries where they can make a decent living, attain their dreams, and revitalize the Bangladesh economy through remittances that could easily be multiples of the $10 billion or so today. The question is in what language are the needed skills to be developed quickly?

Then there is the matter of global integration. The world has become closely linked with economic exchanges and advancements in communication technology, both facilitated by language. Education, trade and commerce, international relations, negotiations with donors, etc., all require the intermediation of language. The legal field is emerging with new concepts and ideas (e.g., intellectual property), representing a special language of its own. And in the technological fields such as genetic engineering, progress is being made in leaps and bounds. The language of the computer--an integral part of productive endeavorsis also evolving at a dizzying pace. We must learn all of these to stay current. The question again is in which language?

For Bangladesh, there is a need to scale up quickly through knowledge transmission. Some of it can probably be accomplished in Bangla because of the facilitative role of one's mother tongue and because standardization would provide economies of scale. However, scaling up in its true sense can only be possible if the language contains the content and knowledge needed for a rapidly changing world. The question, therefore, is whether the Bangla language can be equipped, embellished and invigorated? If so, how can this be done and how soon?

The alternative is to devote resources to learning other languages that have already built into them the content and knowledge that is needed today for economic emancipation. Evidence suggests that the returns from multilingualism are very high as reflected in various education systems in the developed world. In Canada, for example, multiple languages are used all through one's school years. European schools, similarly, use multiple languages. And learning a foreign language is compulsory in many colleges in the US. These countries are also advanced, economically, and one might surmise that they would not entertain the use of multiple languages unless the gains were substantial.

From an ideal perspective, however, Bangladesh does not have the resources or capacity to transform itself into a multilingual country by adopting, as the Europeans do, a number of key languages. On the other hand, Bangla, the mother tongue in which it is easiest to learn, is not equipped with the content and knowledge needs of the 21st economic environment.

Three things must happen, and quickly, to extricate ourselves from this predicament. A vigorous effort must be launched to refurbish Bangla to incorporate new content that would provide basic-skill needs for the rapidly changing environment and so that appropriate competence for the future can be developed even for local needs. At the same time, cultivation of a second language must be seriously envisaged, simultaneously, to align with global employment needs. A special category of people must also be developed through language institutes to equip them with additional language skills as a window to other parts of the world (China, Brazil, Mexico, etc.) to be able to communicate, maintain exchange relationships, and ensure access to global resources and opportunities.

The importance of a second language is evident from various countries that use it in matters of law, economic activities, science and technology, and in the workings of the government. In this regard, English is considered the world's most widely used language.

The English language is also prevalent in various aspects of our national life: in the private companies, in legal matters, communicating with the outside world, etc. And for many people in Bangladesh, their exposure to the language is reasonable given the colonial history. Scaling up in this language promises the quickest returns, although other languages may be learned too by allowing the forces of demand and supply to operate.

Scaling up in English must be done in such a way that its rigor and intensity accelerates as higher levels of education are reached. At the secondary and intermediate levels, the products of the education system must be able to read, write and converse at a level that is consistent with the needs of nurses, mechanics, computer operators, repairmen, hotel and retail employees, and the like. At higher levels of education the standards must enable the graduates to compete with the best and brightest as writers, teachers, doctors, engineers, managers, economists, lawyers, etc. They must be able to absorb and use the knowledge produced elsewhere in the world to function at the highest levels. It is unlikely that such levels can be reached by being monolingual.

A critical component here will be the quality of teaching. It would be vital to develop mechanisms for recruiting, training, motivating, compensating and rewarding those who will devote their lives to teaching and at levels far elevated than what we have today. On their shoulders lies the fate of how quickly this nation can scale up to global standards.

If we decide to introduce the second language comprehensively, however, we must keep a vigilant eye to insure that it does not end up dominating or replacing the mother tongue that is the soul of our culture and heritage. For this we need to promote much more vigorously the work of our cultural ambassadors -- the poets, the painters, the scholars, the historians, the singers, the musicians, the bards, the cinematographers, the playwrights, the actors, the media men and women, the teachers, and related others -- who must seriously engage in the arduous work of making Bangla flourish. It is particularly important to imbibe in our youth the spirit of the mother tongue. This requires their being able to learn and do more creative and self-fulfilling things in Bangla. But establishing the importance of Bangla along with a second language is the surest and quickest way to economic, social and cultural emancipation.

Syed Saad Andaleeb, Distinguished Professor of Marketing and Program Chair at the Black School of Business, Penn State Erie; Editor, Journal of Bangladesh Studies, and President, Bangladesh Development Initiative ( .

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