Doing science in Bangla

Muhammed Zafar Iqbal
I am not a linguist but I couldn't help noticing a few things about Bengali language. Let's take a simple sentence: 'I love you'. In Bengali, we say 'Ami tomake bhalobashi'; (believe it or not it is quite acceptable to write Bengali like this in e-mails and in Internet activities. We could have an elegant solutions like writing Unicode compliant real Bengali, but as usual we are slightly behind our schedule in the cyber world -- so, using Latin characters to write Bengali is common practice these days.) Any way, 'Ami Tomake Bhalobashi' has three words and from elementary mathematics we know that the three words can be arranged in factorial 3 ways, which is 3x2x1=6. The possible permutations are: Ami Tomake Bhalobashi, Ami Bhalobashi Tomake, Tomake Ami Bhalobashi, Tomake Bhalobashi Ami, Bhalobashi Ami Tomake, Bhalobashi Tomake Ami.

I found it very interesting that every single permutation is acceptable in Bengali, one combination is probably more acceptable than the other (if you find a particular combination a bit unusual just read it like a poem!) but none are wrong. I can not compare it with other languages from a linguist's point of view, but I do know that English is not so flexible.

The other five combinations beside 'I love you' (I you love, Love I you, Love you I, You I love, You Love I) are not acceptable in English language. I have a hunch every Bengali male tried to write a poem in his lifetime because of our language, it's exceedingly forgiving and it is unbelievably flexible which makes it a perfect language for writing poem. (This poses the next obvious question -- why only Bengali males but I am going to discuss the language aspect and I do not want to get into a gender issue here!)

Now let me take a similar example from a science textbook (Physics by Robert Resnick and David Halliday -- the one I read in my undergraduate years at Dhaka University). Let me randomly pick a sentence: 'We can show that there are two kinds of charge by rubbing a glass rod with silk and hanging it from a long thread as in fig. 26-1'. I am positive that the meaning of the sentence is obvious to almost everyone, even to a non-science individual. The sentence is constructed in such a way that we get the information in correct order. First it says (1) there are two types of charges, then (2) the experiment one can do to figure it out this and then (3) reference to a figure in case the description of the experiment is not good enough to understand.

Now I would like to give you the same information in Bengali. One obvious way is to translate the sentence in Bengali and very quickly I discover that it is not that simple. If I want to restrict it to one sentence then the best translation I can do is following: 'Ekta kacher dandake silk diye ghoshe 26-1 chhobite dekhano upaye ekta lomba shuta diye jhuliye rekhe amra dekhate pari je charge du rokomer'. You can try but I have a hunch you will not do much better then this. The sentence is okay, but the sequence of information is messed up -- I gave the information in the wrong order.

If I want to do it right and keep the sentence simple then I have to break it into three separate sentences, like: (1) Amra dekhate pari je charge du rokomer. (2) Ekta kacher dandake silk diye ghoshe ekta lomba shuta diye jhuliye rekhe sheta dekhano jai. (3) 26-1 nombor chhobite sheta dekhano hoyechhe. Now the language is simple and lucid -- but I had to sacrifice volume the text is significantly bigger.

I was not aware of this problem before. Every now and then I read science text books written in Bengali and always felt uncomfortable looking at the language -- it is never simple, never direct -- I found the language always a bit convoluted. I thought the science writers didn't have a good grasp of the language. A couple of years ago I started writing a Physics book in Bengali for secondary school students and right away I understood the problem. I realised Bengali is a beautiful language for writing poetry but a difficult language for writing science. I do not know how or why this happens but it is true.

My guess is we have not used Bengali to write science books and the language is not ready yet for explaining science in a concise way. So every time we try to explain science in Bengali, the language of the book becomes a bit complicated and convoluted. I do not think we have any simple solution for this problem. The one and only solution is difficult and time consuming. We have to keep writing science books using Bengali and very slowly our language will become science-ready.

We have a very different problem in science writing altogether. In the field of science and technology we are not at the contributing end, we are always at the receiving end. So the terminology used in science and technology are not in Bengali. It is important that we learn science (or for that matter anything important) in our mother tongue -- but it is not important to make sure that the terms used science is translated in Bengali. A physics student will use the term charge all his life, then why does he have to call it bibhob when he is studying it in school? Why does the student call a resistor rodh when he has to forget this word and relearn resistor for his college and university education? What is the rationale behind all this?

I believe that we should expose our students to the real scientific and technical terms and not to complicated and artificial Bengali sounding words. If in the process we can incorporate a few thousand new real scientific and technological words in our language -- I think we make our language a few thousand words richer. It doesn't restrict us in any way -- if a brilliant scientist discovers something new and gives it a Bengali name it will become a scientific word. Since most our college and universities are in English and all the terms used in those books are in English we should make it an effort to teach our school students the real terms.

I have one last observation about science and Bengali -- that is the Bengali numerals. You can not do science without crunching numbers and we always do it using English numerals. Everyone needs to use calculators and the numbers are in English numerals. Since we use both Bengali and English interchangeably in our documents for various reasons -- we tend to use Bengali and English numbers as well. I can give examples where I faced very serious problems where I could not figure out if the number is 40 in Bengali or 80 in English, or 27 in Bengali or 29 in English.

After a couple of frustrating encounters I have started following a convention, in all my writings of science or mathematics -- even in Bengali text I use English numerals. I do not think I am showing disrespect to my mother tongue -- I do it because I do not have any other choice. It is not practical to do it in any other way anymore. I think this problem should be addressed by our academicians, linguists and intellectuals as soon as possible. I have noticed everyone else has started doing it, so why don't we make it official for the students?

Our education system is in a mess right now, at some point we have to straighten it out -- I do not know when that is gong to happen. I hope everyone realises that the only way we can learn basic science (or anything important for that matter) is in our mother tongue. We are very lucky that we have such a powerful language -- we may need to use it for science more often so that it can also become science-ready. If a student has a very good understanding of science and mathematics, if he knows all the terms in English, if he is comfortable with the English numerals -- and if he really learns English for 12 years as we do, it will be a trivial task to switch the medium of instruction to English at the university level. Unfortunately there are too many ifs-are we ready to tackle all the ifs?

The author is head of the department, Computer Science and Engineering, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet.

A nation: No success, no pride

Professor Abdullah Abu Sayeed, Chairman, Bishwo Shahitto Kendro talks to Kaushik Sankar Das of The Daily Star

The Daily Star (TDS): Has observing Ekushey become more of a ritual than anything else?

Abdullah Abu Sayeed (AAS): When the movement for a national language began, we as a nation had a big dream. It wasn't just a dream, it was a case of patriotism, emergence of a sense of being Bangali and it continued without any hindrance till independence in 1971. Bangladesh was born through the dream we had envisaged in 1952. But naturally the dream was shattered after independence. What we need to do now is to enrich the language. It's not a dream any more, it's now something real because we have become the rightful owner of Bangla.

But unfortunately we have lost the power to implement anything in life. We can dream, we can get energised, we can plan a whole lot of things, but sadly we can't translate them into reality. And that's what happened with Bangla. We have festivals, but festival is the culmination of a plan or programme. Unfortunately we don't have any plans for the future. We don't remember Ekushey all through the year and that's probably why we try to repay the debts by observing the day with great fanfare. A nation can't progress like this, but it reflects the state of our society.

TDS: But Bangla was made the official language soon after independence, wasn't that a step in the right direction?

AAS: Yes, it was. At least now Bangla is being used extensively in all official, formal or informal programmes. But there is a flipside to it too. To increase the practice of Bangla at all levels, we kind of said goodbye to English. We lost contact with a culture, a tradition. As a result we lost our ability to be broadminded, to think big. Then over the years, we lost interest in everything in general, not just Bangla; mainly because the standard of our education deteriorated alarmingly.

TDS: What about the textbooks in schools and colleges?

AAS: What about them? With the deterioration of our basic education standard, our Bangla became weak as well. Topping it with materialistic approach towards life simply crippled our thinking process. What happened was that we kind of overlooked the positive outcome of such attitude and highlighted the negative aspects. The present time will remembered as a period when we, the Bangalees amassed huge wealth -- honestly or dishonestly; but in return, we destroyed our culture, our tradition, anything that we can be proud of. Thus we became a fragile nation. But surviving through bad times would give us strength to look forward to good times.

TDS: Bangalees have always been known as avid readers, voracious at that. Why did the habit change?

AAS: When we got independence from the British in 1947, we, as a nation that lacked wealth, education, did not have any culture of reading books amongst ourselves. May be a small privileged middle class community was inclined to reading novels and articles. Even now it's the same. When we began our mobile library project in various areas of big cities, we had expected, or at least hoped that middle-aged parents, retired persons would become members. But surprisingly it was the opposite. Then I realised that there was no widespread reading culture in our country, majority never had reading habit. They had never known the joy and pleasure of learning something new through reading, becoming more knowledgeable. But the present generation will be different.

TDS: But how many of them are out there?

AAS: You will be amazed to know the kind of response we get from our book reading project at Bishwo Shahitto Kendro. There are hundreds of thousands of members of our mobile library; we could have had more members provided we had more resources. It is completely a wrong notion that people don't read anymore. We never attempted to take books, as a commodity, to people's doorsteps, the way we have done with a, say, soap. At the same time, we should also remember that its a small group of people who like to read. You can't expect every Tom, Dick and Harry to be book fanatics. One has to possess a reflective mind to be able to grasp what's there inside a hardback.

But there is demand, otherwise how would you explain even the dailies, these days, bringing out special editions for Eid. It proves that Bangalees still have this knack for reading, all we have to do is tap that interest properly and bring about a big change in terms of reading.

TDS: How would you explain the changes in written Bangla. For example, the language we read in newspapers these days is more colloquial.

AAS: It is probably the demand of the readers, a reader will always find it easier to read something that's close to the spoken language.

TDS: But does the language get demeaned in the process?
AAS: Well, any language is demeaned while used for commercial purposes. A newspaper has to reach a wider population, the more readers it can attract, the more it will sell. Therefore, newspaper might not worry about the standard of the language. And subsequently, the standard of our language has also gone down.

TDS:Can we not prevent it?

AAS: The only way to prevent it is preparing the institutions in a way that it would be the bearer of standard. Today, our educational institutions hardly have any standard. A student learns the basics from school, it does the ground work for him or her to grow up into a good, intelligent human being. But if the school itself lacks the spirit and intention, then what's the point? We need at least 500 schools at this moment where education will take precedence over everything. Students will gain knowledge, become more aware. So if there are 2000 students in one school, we will have one million students who will work to keep the standard high.

TDS: Why do we have this tendency of using names from a foreign language for, say an apartment block or a shop?

AAS: It is a simple case of inferiority complex. If something is named in English, we immediately feel that it must be of higher standard. There are plenty of names in Bangla which can easily be used, but we always had this partiality towards anything white -- be it skin or beards or dresses. We don't trust anything that is ours. This is another fallout of all those schools in our country where everything is being taught in English. Instead of building up this generation as well-versed in English language, these schools, in reality, are actually building them up as foreigners. They have no exposure, no links with Bangla culture, Bangla literature. It's not their fault -- they have to be taught about our heritage, our culture, our literature. Unfortunately they are growing up with an illusion that our country has no cultural background, no literary heritage that we can be proud of. What good would they be of, if they don't know the history of their own tradition?

TDS: But if other Asian countries like Thailand, Japan etc can prosper by using their own language, culture, tradition, why can't we?

AAS: Exactly. The history, tradition of Bangla language is richer than Thai or Japanese. We can describe anything in Bangla, there are very few languages in the world which can boast of such a thing.

There was a middle class Bangali community, predominantly Muslim, from 1930s who took active part in liberation movement, language movement, fought for the independence of Bangladesh in early seventies. They had ideals, were well read to some extent and honest. But since the late seventies, they began to disappear from the society and the dishonest people who wanted to earn as much money as possible in the shortest possible time by any means, took control. And those people lacking sensibilities and refinement are still as dominant as ever. The crass materialism has taken over collective, positive thinking. The result is that we don't have any success to be proud of as a nation.

My reflections on the day

Aly Zaker
On the National Days those of us involved in various cultural media are called upon to write on the significance of culture related to the days in question. When asked to dwell upon the specificity of these days I feel a little nervous. Because a discussion on the same subject year after year is bound to become repetitive and, unless extraordinary in quality, very boring. However, a significant National Day like the 21st February centers on culture and language being a very important component of culture it is only natural that discussions will continue to go on.

To my mind, if we go beyond the political importance of 21st February and endeavour to focus on the core values and ideals as a component of the overall national aspiration for Bangladesh' independence, then we would be looking at a greater, more meaningful and more significant dimension of this day in our national life. Why this day alone? Each of the important days in the annals of our long drawn movement to establish the identity of our nationhood goes far beyond being just a date on the page of the calendar.

Coming back to the 21st of February, can its contribution to our culture, and therefore national identity, be overemphasised? It is time we tried to focus our thoughts on how language and culture could play a much greater role in our national life. This seems even more important to me when I think about our posterity and shudder to find that progressively they are becoming aimless individuals devoid of a national identity.

Thirty-three years in the life of a nation is not long. But if we have been marking time for thirty three years and have not progressed an inch then even after three hundred years we may become 333 and we would still be caught napping.

Permit me to concentrate on my own subject of Theatre. To the best of my knowledge only one quality play was written that is directly related to the Martyrs Day. The play is "KABOR"(The Grave) written by one of our martyred intellectuals Munier Chowdhury. A few more could be found related to Bangladesh's war of Independence that could stand the test of time. Some might think that this is our misfortune or inadequacy. I would beg to differ with them.

When a nation can fight on the question of its language, on the question of its economy, on the question of its freedom and identity that nation is matured enough to be empowered by these events to create works of art which do not have to be relevant to mere dates on the pages of the calendar. Our limitation in converting the spirit of our struggle to beyond specificity may make our culture stunted and unfortunately, irrelevant to the people of the world. This I say at the risk of being considered a pessimist but so be it.

Let us look beyond the boundaries of our country. SamuelBeckett, the famous playwright poet of England wrote in French a play called " Waiting for Godot". This was inspired by the feeling of emptiness and that of helplessness in post Second World War Europe. This play did not speak about the glorious victory of the allied forces in the war but has gone on to become one of the finest works of art in postwar Europe. Indeed the genre of the Theatre of the Absurd, that this play has been described as, is a creation of the Second World War.

The Theatre of the Absurd, as we know, has been playing such an important role in the world of Theatre today that it is impossible for anybody to ignore it. How about Jean Paul Sartre's " Men without Shadows" and " No Exit"? These are considered very important post war plays and also exponent of Sartre's philosophy of Existentialism. In 1956, eleven years after the Second World War. John Osborne, a twenty three year old playwright from Great Britain wrote a play called "Look back in Anger". This became such an important play that the period after this, English theatre is referred to as "Anger and after". Mention of all these is meant to strengthen my conviction that a generation of creative artists when freed and are not intimidated by wars and destruction can take their art to an enviable height. They do not necessarily have to dwell upon events.

I remember having watched on the terrestrial national television channel of India a special cultural show celebrating their Republic Day a couple of years ago. The experience was extra-ordinary. Parveen Sultana the famous classical singer of India sang two songs in this National Hook-Up. One was a "Khayal" and the other a "Bhajan". Behind her at the top of the three-tier stage the famous Indian painter Maqbool Fida Hussain was busy painting his thoughts on the Indian Independence in tune with the music of Ms.Sultana. In fore stage a famous Indian dancer rendered a classical dance number composed on the rhythm and the lyrics of Parveen Sultana's songs. Mind you, this was the Republic Day function being held in New Delhi and how gloriously the organizers of the function projected the achievement of Indian art through the display of the best they have in painting, music and dance.

Therefore, we must not be constrained by limiting ourselves only to the description of history in our artistic endeavors but go beyond it. It is not desirable for the artist to restrict his imagination but to give it a free flow and unhindered expression to create something larger than life. We must not forget the fact that the people of Bangladesh, through their untiring struggles have been able to establish a new world for themselves and for the future generation. This new world must give birth to newer ideas.

Over the last thirty years those of us in Theatre, have only been able to start a process of regular staging of plays. Our National Days inspire us to rediscover ourselves.

On the Martyrs Day and, more significantly, the International Mother Language Day, we must take our creative thinking to beyond Bangladesh. If one of us can write a novel in a language other than Bengali and is able to attract the attention of the world that adds to the spirit and success of the 21st of February. The success, evidently, would be attributed to creativity intrinsic to the Language Movement or the War of Liberation. Let it be the resolve of my fellow artistes of Bangladesh today.

The author is a theatre personality.

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