Despite Bengali being the mother tongue for majority students in high school and colleges, they often referred to Bengali as kothin (difficult) language. Talking to students, teachers and different experts Shovon Das explored this paradoxical question.
Bangla keno kothin lage? Why do you find Bengali kothin (difficult)?
It is a common phenomenon among students these days. They often find Bangla despite being the mother tongue as the difficult language. When asked this question to a student of Daffodil University, he took a moment and responded, ‘Bangla grammar is very difficult.’ The same question with a twist was asked to a SSC examinee of English version curriculum of Kakoli School and College. Do you find Bengali kothin because of grammar? Her response was evocative, ‘we are not rewarded for doing good in Bengali. So, from very early on we put in more effort in English, Math or Science. At the end of the year, if you get a prize in science, your parents will be very happy. Instead, if you get it for Bangla essay writing competition, they will be happy, but not as happy. Since Bangla is our mother tongue, we are more casual about it. That might be the reason eventually it gets difficult for us.’
A madrasha student’s response revealed how divisive the early education system is in Bangladesh. When asked the question to a madrasha student from Mohammadpur, he said, ‘Effectively we are compelled to learn English, Bangla and Arabic. Unlike English medium schools, here Arabic is prioritised over other subjects. A good student would try to emphasise English after Arabic, because you need to know English in order to remain competitive in this education system, to get into the good universities. Inevitably, as a formal topic of learning Bangla gets very little attention of students. Therefore, it is not a surprise that it appears as difficult.’
For ethnic minority students in Bangladesh, their relationship with Bangla is different. A student of Khagrachari College related her struggle with Bangla and English. ‘Bangla is not our mother tongue and due to the history of ethnic violence in Chittagong Hill Tracts, we don’t have much interaction with Bengali community or the language. It would be mistaken to say we don’t know the language before we start school. How can you not know Bangla being Bangladeshi, but it is as difficult as English for us.’
These wide ranges of response to the question made me pause and reflect more meticulously on the question. The first lesson I have learnt is that language is not just a means of expression it is also a relationship. I become particularly aware of this relationship when talking to the student of Khagrachari College. In her response, she underscored the point how her relationship with ‘Bengali is strained.’ However, for this essay, I will focus exclusively on this popular tension between English and Bengali — a tension that rise to prominence on this very month of language movement every year. In talkshows, blogposts and discussion forums, expert voices raise concern about the lack or improper use of Bengali. I had the opportunity to attend one such event recently, but I will return to that experience shortly.
What is striking in all these responses is that there is a disjuncture between the Bengali as you speak and the Bengali as you learn at an institutional set up. Bengali as an institutional, formal language does not have the pedagogical support that it demands to gather student’s attention, said anthropologist Mirza Taslima Sultana. Her response is revealing and understandable. In a recent story from the national daily Banik Barta, I have read how Bengali grammar is historically in some way an emulation of English grammar. Despite such similarities, Bengali grammar still appears difficult to students than English. This reflects on the learning tools that Mirza Taslima Sultana is referring to as pedagogical question, ‘The way Bengali is taught in school, mother tongue slowly starts to feel distant, it is not taught interestingly, creatively.’
Anthropologist Mirza Taslima Sultana’s reflection got me thinking about another question, ‘apon bhasha kivabe por hoye uthe (How mother tongue becomes the other language)?’ How through socialisation process our own mother tongue becomes other language for ourselves? To attend this question, I will refer to the discussions from a roundtable jointly organised by the daily Prothom Alo and HSBC titled ‘Use of Bangla at all levels.’ At the roundtable, educationist professor Rafiqul Islam said, ‘preferring a foreign language to the mother tongue and the jumbling of two languages together indicate one’s inferiority.’ This preference and feelings of inferiority is cultivated by a hierarchical education system in which learning English is socially and institutionally incentivised. It is evident in the response of a madrasha student, ‘A good [madrasha] student would try to emphasise English after Arabic, because you need to know English in order to remain competitive in this education system.’ This comment quite poignantly illustrates the context of brewing inferiority that educationist Rafiqul Islam indicated.
At the Prothom Alo round table two other points were raised by language scholars and educationist that I thought is important to understand the socilisation process through which this apon por dichtomy of language is nurtured. The experts at the event spoken in great details about the jumbled up use of Bengali and English, ‘some electronic media, especially FM radio stations, distort Bangla so terribly that a new language variant called ‘Banglish’ (a jumble of Bangla and English) was created.’ While I am no proponent of purity of language, I think their remark on social and electronic media use of Bengali reveals another aspect of this socialisation process in which speaking incorrect and jumbled Bengali is fashionable. It also shows the growing distance between standard Bengali and vernacular Bengali in our times, the distance may also be an important factor in turning Bengali as kothin (difficult) and por (other) language.
Bangla keno kothin lage? – is not a question of how an individual student experience Bengali in school. My journey this week, knocking many doors with this question, why Bengali seem more difficult to students made me aware of embedded social inequality and many hierarchies that students are compelled to navigate being part of this education system.
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