On Protecting the Bangla Language

Charlene Hasib

Charlene Hasib is a Program Officer at USBAC. The opinions expressed are the writer's own.

The 21st of February is the UN recognized “International Mother Language Day” or, in Bangla,
“Antorjatik Matri Bhasha Dibosh.” The date commemorates the
massacre in 1952 of peaceful student
protestors in Bangladesh, then known as East Pakistan, by West Pakistani police. The students were
protesting the central government’s diktat enshrining Urdu as the official language of the land.
February 21 provides an important opportunity for not only Bangladeshis, but people worldwide to
celebrate their native tongues and explore their history. It is also a good time to explore the need to
preserve marginalized languages while recognizing that a thriving language is one that is evolving.

In February of 2012, a Bangladeshi High Court
 passed a ruling to ban the use of  "Banglish", a hybrid
of Bangla and English in the news media and the pronunciation of Bangla with “a foreign accent.” The
High Court passed this ruling even though many  Bangladeshis have protested that the law
disseminates the normative worldview of a few language-purists while violating freedom of
expression for all. Opponents state that the ruling could make the Bangladeshi government the arbiter
of what constitutes appropriate language usage and, if taken to the extreme, could allow
discrimination against regional dialects in favor of “shuddho,” or the vernacularly pure, form of the
language, which is rarely spoken among the general populace.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the language debate is the psychological underpinning of the
purists’ intentions. The very birth of Bangladesh was inspired by the East Pakistanis’ insistence on
speaking their mother-tongue, Bangla, instead of the state-imposed Urdu. Many older citizens
remember the bloody nationalistic fight for independence that ensued out of the 1952 language
movement. To them, as well as others who favor the High Court ruling, the dilution of Bangla must
register as singularly disrespectful to the memory of those who fought and died to preserve the
language for their progeny.

The history of the language movement compounds the insecurity among older Bangladeshis about
losing younger generations to the English-speaking, post-globalization reality. In their view, the new
world order celebrates the cosmopolitan and denigrates the traditional. To the purists, the
hybridization between Bangla and English represents the dilution of the Bangladeshi national identity:
the younger generations increasingly think in Banglish, speak in Banglish, and, therefore, become
less Bangladeshi and more Bangleshi. They feel that the unique connotations and associations that
exist within Bangla will be diluted if not lost altogether. Certain Bangla words evoke an emotional
response that no single English word can fully encapsulate. The language purists are concerned,
perhaps not without reason, that the loss of traditional expression will be followed by the extinction of
singularly Bangladeshi feelings and experiences.

While the concerns that the law embodies are understandable, it is undoubtedly overreaching in
scope. Many people cannot help the accents which color their rhetoric and the presence or absence of
an accent itself is subjective. An individual may believe that he or she speaks an accent-less form of
the language, but folks from a province with a different dialect may disagree with this characterization.
As for banning the scattering of English words amidst the Bangla spoken on the radio and on
television, the government is clearly going against the inevitable tide of progress.

Furthermore, the perceived threat to the Bangla language does not, in fact, exist.
As the sixth most commonly spoken language in the world, it is robust and
thriving. Even if the problem of language deterioration existed, less intrusive
actions could easily be formulated. For example, the government could provide
guidelines for Bangla language education, especially for English medium schools
where students often receive less rigorous Bangla language education, and invest
in educational programming, especially for young children. Even on television,
globally successful television programs for children could be dubbed into
"Shuddho Bangla". Steps such as these would help promote the correct usage of
Bangla language as well as its continued utilization rather than merely dictating a
new standard of usage through a country's High Court.

Unfortunately, in this case the Bangladeshi High Court’s actions are miscalculated, and unlikely to be
sustainable. However, it is a concern that is entirely valid in other global contexts. Language is not
simply a mode of communication—it is the most organic and vibrant of human constructs; it is the
inheritance of a people and the medium through which their history and knowledge is preserved.
Small indigenous tribes living in relatively unspoiled and insular parts of the globe often pass on their
tales of creation and the experiences of their ancestors through their unique languages. Many of these
languages have no script, and are not preserved on paper—rather they are passed on from one
generation of native speakers to another.  Such remote societies may have words for objects and
experiences that are unique to their way of life and hitherto unknown outside their society. Perhaps a
language spoken by a remote tribe in a remote ecology describes species of plants and animals that
have been hitherto uncatalogued by scientists. However, with the pervasive advent of globalization,
these languages are threatened with extinction. Some linguists estimate that most of the 6,000
languages spoken on earth will disappear within a few generations. Scientists are scrambling to
encode many of these unique and dwindling tongues, but, in all likelihood, globalization will soon
eradicate the product of thousands of years of human achievement—a unique and coherent
framework through which thought and experience can be captured and conveyed. Once functionally
extinct, only a few linguistic aficionados will likely take the time to study, and perhaps learn, the remote
tribal language of the marginalized peoples of the world.

The evolution of language is necessary as the world changes, but language devolution is a
concomitant side effect of globalization. The loss of the richness of expression in any language is a
tragedy.

Yes, fringe languages must be protected against the advent of a handful of
unifying tongues, the major diplomatic languages—English, Spanish, French,
Arabic, Hindi, and a few others. However, this must be balanced against the
natural, and healthy, growth of expression—a balance that is increasingly difficult
to achieve.

As the Bangladeshi Nobel Laureate in Literature, Rabindranath Tagore, stated: "All men have poetry in
their hearts, and it is necessary for them, as much as possible, to express their feelings. For this they
must have a medium, moving and pliant, which can refreshingly become their own, age after age. All
great languages undergo change. Those languages which resist the spirit of change are doomed and
will never produce great harvests of thought and literature.
U.S. Bangladesh Advisory Council