English and imperialism in Bangladesh

Published on Friday, November 20, 2009

Recently, a Bengali lecturer of an English course in a private university was unable to translate "Nogorayan" - a Bengali word that stands for "urbanization" - in a class when a student asked her for help. The teacher proudly said that she could not translate the word, since she was more familiar with English, had forgotten many Bengali words and felt more at home with English.

This is a common scenario for Bangladeshis, from lecturers to rickshaw drivers; they feel proud to learn English and wish to forget their mother language of Bangla. Even though these people dream in Bangla, think in Bangla and have their inner growth and imagination begin and end in Bangla, they still want to deny its existence. Some feel sad that their mother tongue was not English by birth; they feel cursed instead of blessed by the Bangla language.

The triumph of English and and the belittling of the mother tongue of Bangla in Bangladesh is tragic. The mushrooming growth of English-speaking schools recalls colonization to mind, where the education system controlled by the colonial powers propagated and institutionalized English.

In British India, the colonial forces tried their best to learn the native Indian languages, but found it really hard to master the more than 29 spoken languages present in India. They found it was easier to have the Indian people learn English instead.

While prominent Christian missionary William Carry was translating Bible into Bangla and Baptist missionaries Joshua Marshman, William Ward and John Clark Marshman were mastering Bangla and publishing the first Bangla newspaper, the Samachar Darpan, the colonial forces were projecting and propagating their racist and imperialist tool, using English to set up the empire for the future by getting the best minds of India through "brain drain" and by controlling their language. The politics of language were also practiced by the Pakistani government, when it forced Urdu as the official language upon the people of then East Pakistan, which is today Bangladesh.

When the colonial forces were kicked out from the Indian subcontinent, the nation needed to slowly make reforms in the use of language and counter the negative impact of having English as the primary and formal language used at the administrative level. In 1935, Calcutta University took the initiative and introduced Bangla as the language of education together with English. In Bangladesh, the use of Bangla at the college level started in the 1960s. This system continues on the Indian subcontinent.

After its independence from Pakistan, the government of Bangladesh made the decision to replace English with Bangla at the administrative level, but after the death of Sheikh Mujib, this process came to a halt and English continued to be the primary language. The process was continued when Hussain Muhammad Ershad introduced the Bangla Procholon Aeen, or Bangla Implementation Act, of 1987.

The scenario has changed in Bangladesh. At different administrative levels, Bangla is the official language. But, although the lower courts carry out their activities in Bangla, English remain influential since many of the judges in the high courts and Supreme Court give their verdicts in English.

The influence of English is even greater in the areas of science and technology, for the sake of higher education. Major problems include the fact that there are not enough books in Bangla to teach with and that most of the books and references are in English or other languages.

Everyone is obviously not learning English because they like English or Shakespeare or Elizabeth Bishop, etc. They are learning it because the English language has established itself as the language of the world. The English language has an influential history. It started its journey as a West Germanic language in the early 5th century A.D. and, gradually, with the growth of British Empire, it spread beyond the British Isles; by the late nineteenth century, it had become the first global "lingua franca".

From the Roman invasion of England by Julius Caesar in 55 B.C. to any aggression against other countries, the English language was often a tool of imperialist politics. Nowadays, English is used as the official language in 53 countries and 300 to 400 million people use English as their primary language all around the world. Many religious and state entities have patronized English.

On Feb. 21, 1952, several people were killed by police as thousands protested for their right to use the Bangla language. Rabindranath Tagore, given the name Gurudev, and other Bengalis have given the Bangla language a place of honor in the world. If we Bangla-speaking people can focus on Bangla, the rest of the world be in our hands; many "Gurudevs" will shine before the world. Then, the imperialist politics of English will collapse.

William Nicholas Gomes is a human rights activist and freelance journalist.He can be reached at E-mail:cda.exe@gmail.com

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