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     Volume 11 |Issue 40| October 12, 2012 |


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Growing Confidently with English

Shah Husain Imam


Two important persons, one a former head of a statutory body and the other a highly placed government official recently said something that startled me as it would anybody else. They sounded pretty credible with what they said. For their observations were based on experience and knowledge, gathered first hand or relayed by their peers.

The retired civil servant told me that some officers in border districts of Bangladesh cannot communicate effectively in English with their Indian counterparts.

The serving government official, a PhD in Economics, had this to say as though corroborating, in a way, the statement of the former gentleman: Implementation, monitoring and evaluation division (IMED) of the Planning Ministry attributes some senior officials' deficiency in English to communicate with the development partners as one of the reasons for slowed pace of ADP implementation. This maybe only partly true because even in the utilisation of the domestic resource component of the ADP which is fairly substantial, they are equally, if not more, sluggish.

But in truth, our negotiating capability is either a casualty of poor articulation through inadequate English or selfish hidden agenda.

One needn't be surprised, if even the foreign ministry should be handicapped at a senior level in fluently carrying their points with their counterparts overseas. This is because the generation proficient in English has either hung up their gloves, or is nearing retirement. Some of the samples sound dire, the YouTube one, for instance, from a Middle Eastern country was quite appalling a few months back.

Detractors tend to cite the instances of Chinese, Japanese and Koreans in their earlier stages getting by internationally with whatever English they knew with their differentiated intonations. They forget that some countries are heard with attention because of their size, or economic clout, or military might, or a combination of all these attributes. Bangladesh has yet to be in that league, although it has the potential to be valued more than it is. That would require the major political parties to unlock their horns and present a more amicable image of coming to terms with their differences.

In Bangladesh, there has been a generational disorientation from English as a second language since independence up until the mid 80's -- the time span marked by a uni-lingual rage. Nothing wrong with the stress on mother tongue as a medium of education; but to have done so at the cost of English was an error of judgment. A case of patriotism being perceived from the wrong end of the spectrum. An entire generation of Bangladeshis grew hobbling in the use of a major international language like English despite the heritage factor.

Now though English is a compulsory subject from primary to higher secondary level, there is a severe shortage of good English teachers to impart basic knowledge on the subject. This in a large part can be blamed on the void we inherit from a generational disconnect with English. Correcting the imbalance would take time unless it is fast-tracked by a crash policy intervention.

Here is something extra for one to sit up, take note of and huff and puff about. Examiners of written test papers submitted by candidates for Bangladesh Civil Service examinations would in very rare cases come by an answer script written in English -- the ratio being as low as 300 to two or three.

English is well-spoken among almost all classes of people in India, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan. Tourists never shy away from pointing this out to Bangladeshis. Some people argue that India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka being multilingual needed English as lingua franca. To them, linguistic homogeneity of Bangladesh has acted as a disincentive to acquiring proficiency in a second language. If they are right about the other South Asian countries, they are wrong about Bangladesh. Since Bangladesh is uni-lingual, there's all the more reason why we should vigorously cultivate English. Even go beyond a second language entering into the realm of other important international languages. If in one year, a Bangladeshi could learn German and earn his PhD in Germany it is time we promoted just not English learning but also acquaint ourselves with some other international languages including Chinese.

The prospect of demographic dividends from an overwhelming number of potentially working people between 15 plus and 59 may not revisit in the life of a nation. This is now in our hands to reap the dividends from. That is, if we treat English not merely as a skill but as a tool to engineer growth by leapfrogging.

Spare a thought on far-away Scandinavian countries. Many Norwegian, Swedes and Danes are fluent in English, German, Russian and Spanish, all because they are basically trading nations having to communicate with their business partners. No wonder they get the best deals.

The writer is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.



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