The Bengali spirit rose in revolt in anticipation of their mother tongue being delegated to a secondary and non-effective position in the newly born state of Pakistan. It ignited the historical inferno of the Bangla Language Movement.
Gradually the movement took up momentum and people from all walks of life in the erstwhile East Pakistan got involved till it reached its climax in 1952. From then onwards there was no going back.
Bangla is not the only language in the world which was and still is being threatened by other domineering language and culture nor will it be the last one. But it is the first language which got established as the rightful language of a people through bloodshed. We could fight the outside threat to our beloved mother language in the fifties through sixties. We were united against the open threat from an easily identifiable alien enemy.
Times have changed; a lot of water has flown down the Ganges and the Padma. Now our beloved Bangla is again under dire threat. But now the threat is so deep inside our minds that to fight it is not as easy, because now the threat is from within our own homes. Now the enemy of our language has infiltrated into the minds of our people from all walks of life; the formative young students, the matured homemakers, the senior retirees, all are prey.
Once again we must fight for our beloved Bangla language. This time the battle is on the home ground and the opponent is not an alien but our own people. How many of our English medium educated population are able to read and write Bangla proficiently is not a casual matter to be laughed away. We have won the war of independence through bloodshed. We do not want to lose the bloodless battle of languages. That Bangla will not lose due to advent of computer technology, is assured by the creation of the Bangla keyboard, which has ensured that Bangla language can stay abreast with world technology. Now very appropriately Bangladesh has the proponent of the Bangla keyboard ‘Bijoy’ as the ICT minister.
Number of speakers empowers language: In these modern times, language is not just a carrier for the spoken and written words; it also states the power position of a particular language in the world community of languages, usually depending on the number of native and foreign speakers of a language. In that sense, Bangla is a powerful language with 250 million native and 300 million total speakers worldwide, it is one of the most spoken languages, ranked seventh in the world.
People empower language: When natives of one language choose to speak in another language, they consciously or unconsciously empower the language they choose over their own mother tongue. This has far reaching and long term effect for both the language that is chosen and the one that is forsaken. It gradually erodes the importance of their own language in their national life, eventually disempowering it in comparison to the other language. Gradual erosion of importance of a language happens like this. One would say that no sane person would do it to their own mother tongue. But it is done by people who are not only sane but also of high intellect and education. For only the educated have knowledge of language other than their tongue. It can be said that they give priority to a foreign language either to acquire higher knowledge or position or simply without much deep thought given to its consequence. It all happens rather unobtrusively and so unaggressively in the globalised world of today that it raises not much dissent nor attracts much attention.
Culture is the battle ground of languages: No army crashes in to either break down the barricades of a language or mow down the people who speak it. The danger comes in another form and shape, the surreptitious attack is not directly on the language but on the culture, heritage, education system, literature, music and cinema of a nation. The battle for the hearts and minds of the people is fought on an innovative ground by uprooting old values and embedding new ones into the soil. Eventually the people themselves fight the battle of the outsider in their own country against their own people. It happens when the people of one culture prefers the music, cinema, drama, news, fashion, food, ideas, etc. of another culture above that of their own, consciously or unconsciously. In a globalised world it is natural for cultures, values and tastes to merge but not at the cost of losing touch with one’s own heritage.
Language empowers people: We won’t be wrong if we say that it is very prestigious in Bangladesh to have fluency in English. It is a mark of differentiation to be able to speak and write correct English in a country where almost everyone knows Bangla. But why choose English and not French or German or some other language of another developed country? The reason simply is that the English ruled the subcontinent for about 200 years, that’s why. This is mostly due to the historical fact of the language of the colonial power being the official language of the colonies. As such the elites and upper class people of colonies found that learning the colonial master’s language earned them higher status and better jobs in the country, therefore the colonial master’s language became the language of the elites in the colonies. This mindset was born and bred in the colonial era, but persists still now very much in the erstwhile colonies.
Language as international: Most of the colonial languages are still widely used in the former colonies. English is spoken in many of the former colonies in Asia and Africa. But what is an international language, one may ask? An international language may be said to be one that is understood, spoken, read and written in many countries of the world. English is also one of the official languages of the United Nations. Five of the UN languages are of the original member nations. Arabic became the sixth UN language on the power of Arab oil. With the increased use of alternative energy will the importance of Arabs and Arabic remain the same? The varied path of a language towards becoming international is interesting. But basically one can safely assume that most of the languages of the erstwhile colonial powers have internationalised languages.
Language divides class: Language proficiency has become a dividing factor. Now it is used as a benchmark to differentiate between classes within a country. Social status, access to higher education and lucrative jobs are generally reflective of foreign language proficiency in many countries. But in the developing countries it is more a matter of prestige and status while in the developed countries it is more a matter of access to education, culture and information.
In view of the importance of knowledge of languages, it is wise to equip oneself with multiple languages without devaluating one’s own language.
If Bangla is disempowered by native speakers then they are actually undermining themselves in comparison to speakers of other languages of the world. As the majority of our population lives in the rural areas, the educational institutions there must be developed to impart the necessary language proficiency to enable competitiveness with the rest of the country. The gap in education among rural and urban students must be eliminated if our country has to move ahead at breakneck speed.
We cannot achieve satisfactory progress without pulling our maximum strength to push ahead. There is strength in numbers. Our maximum numbers are in the rural areas. With the rural population getting quality education, the overall picture of the country will change. We will have educated farmers, fishermen, shopkeepers, etc. Education makes a better human being too. So we will have better quality population, which will transmit into a better country for us. For after all what is a country but its people, so the development of the country must mean development of the majority of the people, otherwise all definitions of developments without carrying the majority of the people in tow will be meaningless.
The writer is a columnist.