Professor Emeritus of Dhaka University, ANISUZZAMAN, talks to Tamanna Khan for Forum about the relevance of mother language and culture in this era of globalisation, cultural integration, economical and technological advancement and rising religious fanaticism.
Forum: How is cultural identity relevant in this era of globalisation?
Globalisation has not done away with nation state. The concept of nation and nation state remains valid. Hence identity or sense of identity continues to be important. In the case of Bangladesh our cultural identity has played the foremost role in our strife for freedom. But then we should not be narrow-minded or chauvinistic. We must also realise at the same time that Bangladesh is a multinational country and the culture of Bangladesh is a pluralistic one.
Forum: How do you view our national identity being labelled Bengali when all the people of the country are not actually so?
It is quite proper to label ourselves as Bengalis, because that is our ethnic and linguistic identity. But as I said earlier that Bangladesh is not only a state of the Bengalis alone; we have many other ethnic groups, big and small, who have the same rights and privileges as the Bengalis. We cannot impose the Bengali identity or the Bengali culture on them. We should, on the other hand, make every effort to see that the other cultures in Bangladesh can prosper.
Forum: In practice, e.g., when applying for a job, knowledge of the English language is given priority. How then would we motivate the new generation to learn Bangla which does not reap monetary benefits in today's world?
When in the Pakistan days we wanted to make Bangla the state language, we had all the determination to see that Bengali finds its due place in education, administration and all other spheres of life. Since we became independent and our Constitution declared Bangla as the state language, we have not done much to see that the spirit of the Constitution provision is translated into practice. The middle-class of our country now wants their children to be educated abroad and if possible to stay abroad as well. So they have put more emphasis on English. That is why in the towns and cities in Bangladesh we see mushrooming of English medium schools or adoption of the English medium courses within the national system. In the highest court of law in Bangladesh, Bangla has not yet been allowed admission. In the field of education, we have not been able to render Banglai effectively -- the fault of course is ours. We have not produced enough Bangla books for higher education.
The system of learning languages in Bangladesh, whether English or Bangla, is rather defective. So the end result now is that we have doubts in our minds as to whether Bangla can really be the medium of our higher education or that of administration. Hence, the dichotomy of the language is the question that we confront everyday.
We must learn a second language properly. In our case, that should be English. But then we must create conditions in which Bangla can be successfully used as the medium of instruction at all levels.
Forum: There are many countries that have developed economically without their own individual culture and heritage. Therefore, what is the role of language, culture and heritage in national life?
It is universally accepted that mother language has no alternative in developing the potential of a child. If we look at most of the developed countries we will find that they impart education through their mother languages. There are, of course, exceptions. India is such an example. Because of multiplicity of language, India still uses English as the link language and higher education there is imparted in English. I can't say that they are not being successful but I strongly believe that no other language can take the place of mother language.
Forum: How do you view the use of informal language in the media?
There is a tendency to use a mixed kind of Bangla in some of the media. This mixed language is claimed to be used by the younger generation. I guess their use in the media inspires the younger generation to follow that kind of mixture of standard Bengali dialects and English in the conversation of the youth. A very different kind of English is used in the short messages that are sent over mobile phone. That English can never be called proper English. Similarly, this variety of Bangla that is going on in the name of popular colloquial Bangla cannot be accepted as standard Bangla. It is fun at the best and distortion at the worst.
Forum: A language evolves with time, why then is certain use of language, Bangla in particular, criticised by linguists?
Languages do change but then the change comes naturally and over time. The kind of engineered vocabulary and syntax that we are referring to does not appear to be that kind of natural change, which is spoken by a few, occasionally, and the attempt is made to graft it on the standard colloquial Bengali.
Forum: What role is our media playing in the growth (or lack thereof) of culture in our country?
Media do play an important role. The language of the media is usually taken as the standard one and it is emulated by readers and viewers. The kind of cultural activities reported in the media become the matter of foremost interest for them. In this way, media set a kind of standard for the people at large. Media have therefore the responsibility to watch the impact they are making on the society. Media are often the bearer of foreign influences which may also have a baneful effect on the readers and viewers.
Forum: Culture and religion are sometimes set up as conflicting opposites. Do you believe they are really in conflict? What is the relationship between the two in our country?
Religion and culture have no reason to clash with each other. Religion has a place in one's culture. It can inspire cultural production/output. But I do not see that the followers of a particular religion need to be antagonistic towards other forms of cultural expressions. Often, this is the case. For instance, many people had opposed the celebration of Pahela Boishakh, the Bangla New Year or the advent of seasons or the drawing of alpana and the like. But to my mind, this was not called for and I think that after a period of time, such objections have ceased to exist.
Forum: Why is there such a dearth of good writers, actors, singers, etc., today? Is our culture not developing? If not, why?
I do not think we have a dearth of good writers. You do not have monumental achievers very often. You cannot expect a War and Peace or a Gora frequently. But I think on the whole our writers are achievers. It might be so that we have not done well in some literary genres. But then, it is a matter of time. Our poets have actually led the world of Bengali poetry for quite some time.
Forum: Why is the young generation today not interested in classics like Tagore and others and how can they be motivated to be so?
I think the advent of television and internet has interfered with the reading habits of the young. We do not have libraries in the residential areas. Not many educational institutions lent literary works to their students. So, facilities are also limited. But when I go to the Bangla Academy book fair, for instance, I find large numbers of young girls and boys queuing up to buy books. They may not be asking for classics but their interest in contemporary writings august well. I am optimistic. Throughout the world, despite the developing technology, the printed word is not dying.
Tamanna Khan is Feature Writer, The Star magazine.