|Volume 5 Issue 02 | February 2011|
Negotiating two languages and the case for a pragmatic approach to English
SYED MANZOORUL ISLAM re-evaluates the place of the English language in our country.
1. Talking about the place of English in our education and social life and how it influences the politics of representation would seem like a routine academic exercise, but to do so in the month of February might seem a bit odd and out of place, since we assume that the month is solely dedicated to Bangla and a historical re-evaluation of its role in shaping our nationalistic aspirations. The perception though is not incorrect, as February does offer us forums and opportunities to revisit the historic language movement of 1952, and discuss every possible aspect of language issue including the threat that it is facing from the spread of globalisation. It is in this context that a discussion of how we might manage to contain, if not eliminate the threat, and how best we may use the benefits that English has to offer to our advantage may be in order. There is no denying the fact that English is assuming a disproportionate importance in our education, in the media and in our corporate dealings, and threatens to contest Bangla in areas, such as social discourse, that were, even 20 years ago, seen to be Bangla-only domains. But to manage the threat, one has to have a good understanding of not only the historical, cultural and ideological contexts in which English operates in this country, but also the questions of agency and representation that are strategically linked to its spread. Indeed, the cultural luggage that English language brings with it and relocates in the Bangladeshi context also needs to be investigated, if we have to be able to devise ways to counter its influence. We have to keep in mind however, that English has become a tool and a technology in this market-driven world, which we can hardly afford to shun, but we cannot allow it to replace Bangla in any area of daily engagement. If it is a cultural force, we must accept the benefits it might offer us, but should not allow it to shape our cultural expressions. These are no easy tasks, but should not be postponed any longer.
2. With the emergence of a postcolonial, global world, English has assumed the status of a world language, and is seen as a global resource. A third of the world's population is routinely exposed to some form of English, and millions of non-native users have to function in English for their livelihood. English has no doubt become the world's leading cultural language, and a means of social exchange. What is more important is that English is no longer seen to be the exclusive property of the British or the American. As a matter of fact, with the rise of postcolonial communities, they -- the native speakers -- according to some research, began to lose their ownership of the language and their numerical majority in the 1970s. Many believe that in future, English may be the language of communication in countries where two or more languages vie for prominence. English is also continuously changing and reforming itself; it is a plural system accommodating the communicative needs of diverse discourse communities, adjusting to local exigencies and responding to changes in technology, the media and material conditions. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language (1996) lists such hybridisation and lexical invasion among the threats English now faces, along with the spread of non-standard varieties due mainly to code-mixing in countries where English is spoken alongside a national language.
Talking of threats, in many postcolonial communities, English is still considered an obstacle to the development of mother languages, as well as local culture and value systems, and its spread is regarded with suspicion. One may refer to Ngugi wa Thiong'o's rejection of English as an impediment to the development of national and ethnic identities based on mother languages. But there have also been other moves elsewhere to write off English from school curricula or downsize its status in education or official use. In Malaysia, the "Malay Only" policy pushed English to a position of neglect, and in Bangladesh, after the country attained freedom in 1971, English was shown the door, eventually replacing it with Bangla in official use in the mid-1980s. Such programmes no doubt have their share of supporters -- from ultranationalists to ideologists to pragmatists who resist the invasion of English on grounds ranging from its association with a colonial past to a desire to protect the purity and prominence of mother languages in which majority students are educated and trained and in which they can function to the best of their abilities. There are also supporters of English in these countries who champion the inclusion of the language in all stages of education and in official and business communication on grounds that are more or less universally offered as a justification of English: it is the chief language of international business and trade, higher education and scientific and technological research; it is the dominant language of cyber communication and dominates the mediascape even in countries such as India. It is a leading language of international jurisprudence, treaties and diplomacy, and is the main language of communication between doctors and out of country patients in hospitals across the globe. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language adds a few other reasons. It says, for example, that over 80% of all the information stored in electronic retrieval systems is in English. It also cites intellectual and entertainment reasons for the spread of English and mentions popular music, satellite broadcasting and video games, among others, that use English as their main language.
The debate between the detractors and supporters of English hasn't exhausted all the issues, as new evidences for or against English are produced every now and then. The truth must lie somewhere in between: the case for English cannot be decided on a one-sided verdict that either rejects it lock stock and barrel, or embraces it without taking issue with the loss of privilege of mother languages or the threat of cultural hybridisation or disparities and disempowerment associated with English language abilities. While it is generally accepted, even in Bangladesh whose long march to freedom was initiated by a movement for establishing the rights of Bangla in 1952, only five years into the state of Pakistan, intellectuals and educators acknowledge that we need English to be competitive in the Darwinian world of international business and trade, and for adding value to our education. Many feel that experimenting with "Bangla Only" programme has not been beneficial -- it has neither contributed to strengthening of Bangla in education, everyday life and communication, nor to achieving the ideals that we set for our education. If anything, the standard of Bangla has declined, thanks to the influence of mediaspeak and the general negligence our education system has been subjected to under successive governments. A strange diaglossic, even triglossic (if we consider the various dialects people use) language situation prevails in the country, in which adherence to received pronunciation (RP) is seen as laughable by a whole generation of young men and women who have perfected a sub-social dialect where pronunciation, accent, even intonation are at great variance to a more or less agreed upon standard Bangla. This dialect is also full of code-switching and code-mixing, often irritatingly so. Irritating: since it is more a confusion, and in many cases, the users' desire to show off (i.e., their English language capital) that prompt these switchings and mixings. However, that a language situation like this would emerge was not unforeseen. What the promoters of "Bangla Only" programme failed to realise was that every language changes, mutates, decays, gathers strength from borrowings, or even perishes over time. The "Malay Only" policy in Malaysia, if we take an instance from near our home, didn't deliver expected results as the Chinese and Tamil minority groups in Malaysia felt that the language policy was discriminatory towards them. In Bangladesh too, the emphasis on Bangla led to neglect and near-extinction of ethnic languages of Chittagong Hill Tracts and elsewhere in the country. The ethnic population in the country number slightly more than a million, or less than 1% of the total population, but a language, ethnic or national is just what it is -- a language -- and if an ethnic language disappears under pressure from a majority language, it brings into contention a whole range of ethical and political issues, including a gross appropriation of minoritarian discourse. In a postcolonial speech community such as Bangladesh, these questions point to a totalitarian and universalising trend: it ironically puts Bangla in the same position that English held in a colonial setting. Another dimension of this complex local-to-local interface is a compulsive need for a local-to-global interface in which, without sacrificing the mother languages, we have to attempt to harness various gains to empower the local: without a pluralistic base demarcated by a multiple language mix, local-to-local interface would not be productive enough to supply the necessary strength and impetus to our local-to-global interface issues. Just as we expect English teaching to be sensitive to local cultural values and aspirations, the enforcement of Bangla has to take into account ethnic aspirations and need to protect ethnic mother languages. A solid track record in this effort will give us a leverage to enforce culturally appropriate methods of English language pedagogy in the country.
Resistance to English in Bangladesh now operates on an ideological level where a nationalist recovery of lost ground and recuperation of splintered Bengali identity demand a distance from the language which worked, for closely 200 years, as a colonial tool of consolidation and domination. But on a general level, the need for English is well established. Not only have English medium schools mushroomed in the country, along with private universities which provide their instruction in English, the corporate world, and to some extent the media, have shown their marked preference for English. There is also enormous pressure on institutions to provide instruction in English language skills as more and more people desire to access opportunities of income and development that the language provides. There is also a growing realisation among many that stemming the tide of English is an impossibility now, and that more gains can be made by appropriating the linguistic capital -- symbolic or real -- that English has become. Some in this group may have resisted English at the dawn of our independence, when the bright sky showed nothing but clear prospects, and the "Bangla Only" proposition appeared such a doable one. Over the years though, they have realised, just as James Baldwin did in the Caribbean context, that English doesn't need to be imitated, but may well be creatively used -- in their case for self-articulation, knowledge generation and for advancing choices of negotiation.
To make English bear the burden of one's experience as faithfully as does the mother language is a tall order indeed, and in Bangladesh, given the poor state of English teaching, may appear to be well nigh impossible. A drastic improvement in teaching both the languages may well lead to better language proficiency, but to retrieve the ground Bangla has already lost, we need to make substantial material and intellectual investment.
One way we may bring a balance in the teaching of Bangla and English is by doing away with certain assumptions that have consolidated over the years. Many seem to believe that learning English will somehow upgrade their status, and make them 'elites'. This assumption stems from real world disparities, and an absence of language equity. Those with money can learn English the way the world values it; those with no money are simply denied the opportunity. The question of language equity leads us to related issues of income disparity, the urban versus rural -- and the newly emerging digital -- divide and constraints of class and ethnicity. Do all children have access to school? What about the large number of girl children who drop out before they reach sixth grade and simply disappear into the labyrinth of an oppressive social system? Can we pursue a language programme denying these girls and the disprivileged children the opportunity to broaden their horizon that the Constitution of the country recognises as their right? Even if we admit that English language abilities are a set of specialised skills that have to be learnt through specifically designed methods which cannot be replicated everywhere without massive investment of money and materials, the question remains: Can a language policy of a country or community display such an exclusionary bias?
A second issue then becomes pertinent, which, on a simple level deals with representation, agency and exclusion. How does English represent its users? On what grounds? How are they categorised? English indeed invests users with agency and meaning, which can be variously interpreted and applied in the context of academic discourse, power relations, ethnicity and gender, market operations and development issues. As English empowers users to access opportunities -- both local and global -- it also denies non-users the same, and the question of exclusion becomes quite a thorny one at this juncture. Exclusion in this case means not only leaving out a potential user group from a project or programme, but also to consign them -- perhaps permanently -- to a certain form of perceived disability, and mark them out as absences. As absences, this excluded group then remains the consideration of development, if we associate development with the English language. How do we bring them into the frame again, so that they too can have a share of the skill base necessary to function in life? The responsibility rather lies with the society -- and by extension, the government -- to ensure, once it has been agreed that English provides life skills needed to advance opportunities, that teaching and learning of English does not become exclusionary, or that skills are not unfairly distributed along income and class lines. The same applies in the case of Bangla, and with manifold ramifications that our language planners must be aware of.
3. The term representation is a contested one. It is a signifying practice cutting across diverse social and institutional settings to articulate identifications that are either self-made or imposed from outside. In a linguistic setting it articulates meaning and social practices. Meaning however, is not inherent or embedded in the reality that is perceived but is constructed by linguistic representation. ELT practitioners usually promote a standardised set of texts and communicative methods, which they believe to have a universal applicability. Such a universalised and totalised representation denies or suppresses the local and contextually relevant knowledge, and does not take into account a general fluidity in language use and overlapping between languages, cultures and identities that are a fact of life in this age of globalisation. Besides, a one-sided imposition of homogeneous codes and discourses leads to renewed charges of institutional promotion of the hegemony of English.
English, in the colonial times, had represented the dominant order of signification. It helped in the articulation of centrist and often exclusionary practices of the administration and educational and legal institutions. The meaning that the language produced in the Indian context was associated with authority, discipline and order. It was also believed that meaning was inherently embedded in words and objects, and that the English language itself was somehow able to contain pure and authentic meaning, more than local languages, because of its superior logical and grammatical structure. This assumption however, has no truth content, since one cannot compare languages in terms of their logical and grammatical structures for measuring their 'value'. However, with the spread of information technology, globalisation and a post-Fordist "New Economic Order", English is no longer seen to be pure and authentic. Still, the relation between power and representation comes to the fore in language contact situations where language planners, materials designers and instructors may command modalities that may appear authoritative, and the English language as a global capital assumes a position that would demand certain uniformity and standardisation (the Americanisation of Call Centre English, for example). But the question remains: Whose standard? And, Who sets the standard? These questions are ultimately political, since they examine the issues of authority, power and intention that these questions lead to, but also lead to possibilities of negotiation. It is here that the politics of representation becomes pertinent.
Politics of representation foregrounds diversity, plurality and difference. The "politics" part of the term is seen as an injunctive force whose aim is to negotiate difference while rejecting various forms of inequality that have been legitimated through linguistic domination, such as by English in South Asia. Politics in this sense is not a negative construct, neither is its aim disjunctive. While it may use a methodology of investigation that may include subversion as a way of controlled dismantling of manipulative and overtly ideological structures, it ultimately aims to secure towards building consensus. Literary texts routinely use such subversive ploys at their narrative and enunciatory levels to critique inequalities and erasure of subjectivity in oppressive social settings or challenge hegemonic ideologies. For representation to be constructive and inclusive, and for doing away the structured differences based on power and authority, there has to be a qualitative change in the way we see language. English should not be promoted in terms of power, ability and status and as a legitimising force that lends meaning to all our enterprises. There should be a conscious effort on the part of the promoters of English to divest the language from colonial traces and exclusionary ethics. It should not be allowed to be a tool of manipulation by social power groups and the market forces to profit from its 'sale'. It should be promoted as an essentially pluralistic, hybrid and diffused language, which has a fair degree of cultural adaptability. If the emphasis on standardisation and institutional ownership of teaching English are negotiated from an open, cross-cultural perspective, and more importantly, if appropriate methods, texts and teaching practices are devised for rural learners, English may generate a renewed interest among both academic and non-academic learners. And if we may attain the ideals in respect of Bangla that the new education policy (2010) enshrines, we may be able to develop parallel linguistic competence, which, in a globalised world, is considered an asset. We will then be better performers in Bangla, creatively and critically, but will also be able to function well in English where necessary. Bangla, in such a reinvigorating climate, may even claim its place in higher education, becoming the medium, in tandem with English (and other languages) through which we access the world of knowledge.
And, if our enhanced ability in Bangla is translated across all mother languages, we will have solved a nagging problem in regards to ethnic languages: restoring their lost status that they so eminently deserve.
Syed Manzoorul Islam is Professor of English, University of Dhaka.
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