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We cannot miss the bus for poor English skill

Shihab Sarkar | December 07, 2018 00:00:00

Too much stress on the mother tongue prompted by an emotionally charged nationalism begins losing steam in time. Nowadays, this is turning out to be the case with many Asian and a few European countries. English is fast being recognised as the virtual global lingua franca and the business language. Given this fact, scores of earlier mother tongue-centric and closed nations have started opening up. Glaring instances of this shift in stances on language-use include Japan and China --- two prime players in global business and technological innovations. Both the countries may have belatedly realised the price they may have to pay finally/eventually for neglecting English for long. This is amply proven by the eagerness of the two countries' younger generations to enrol in English learning courses. The cases for France and, to some extent, Germany are different. When it comes to the spoken language inside their own countries, they adopt a chauvinistic policy, i.e. no language other than either French or German. However, it doesn't mean that they haven't learnt the use of English at school level. The difference is mother tongues should come first. Moreover, English, French, Spanish, as well as Russian, are included in the list of the six official languages of the United Nations. (The reason for non-inclusion of German is obvious.) Vast numbers of UN member-countries' peoples speak these six languages. They also include Arabic and Chinese.

Against this backdrop, a survey finding's report about the continued decline in the position and standard of English in Bangladesh society has revived an old enigma. English should have enjoyed the status of a widely used language along with the mother tongue -- Bangla. It was mainly due to the fact that the Sub-continent, including the present Bangladesh, was once ruled by the British and their language English. The dominance lasted for two hundred years. Given this fact, English once flourished almost unhindered in the greater Bengal as a medium of instruction. Besides the education sector, English was once used as an official language in government's administrative functions.

In post-independence Bangladesh, the all-sweeping surge of nationalism detracted greatly from the possible role English could have played in the growth of knowledge and different skills in nation-building. Few policymakers were able to comprehend the consequences of the official neglect meted out to the 'colonial master's' language. This short shrift given to English did not go without grim fallout. The miserable decline in English proficiency eventually began showing its deleterious impact on job prospects and higher education. From the 1980s onwards, the national bankruptcy in English skill was continuously giving rise to depressing scenarios. They covered a wide area spanning from different levels of education to skilled jobs overseas.

Almost in line with this slipshod performance in the English language in Bangladesh over the last few decades, there emerged the global English Language Proficiency ranking. Titled 'English Proficiency Index', the survey comprises a global ranking of the nations considering the average level of their citizens' English proficiency. In the index, Bangladesh cuts a sorry figure. The nation has been shown at the 63rd position out of 88 countries. It shows Bangladesh experiencing the most terrible fall among all the Asian nations. The country secures a score of 48.72. It is lower than that it scored last year. It was 50.96. The latest score makes Bangladesh the poorest performer among the Asian countries. The decline in the position of Bangladesh in the index began last year when the country ranked 46th among 80 countries. It means the country has been passing through a bout of continued decline in the sector. This dismal picture stands in sharp contrast with the ambitious programmes and projects being mulled by the authorities to improve the standard of English in the country. The plans include the raising of a new breed of teachers trained in the latest techniques of English teaching. Their task of making youths English-proficient is set to begin from the elementary level of school. The resultant picture is gloomy.

Except a handful of Dhaka and Chattogram-based kindergartens, the performance of elementary schools in the country in general is below par. Most of these schools, in both the urban and rural areas, suffer from an acute dearth of skilled English teachers. Even lots of renowned kindergartens in the cities fail to impart sufficient English knowledge to their child students. According to experts, proficiency in English, and for that matter even in Bangla, requires a certain amount of passion and love for those languages. Speaking woefully, students in higher classes in the country are found struggling with unconventional structures of English in public examinations. In a situation like this, the plight of school and college students is well understood.

The unbridled enthusiasm for the mother tongue in post-independent Bangladesh, replacing English wholesale with Bangla in administrative functions and introduction of weird-sounding Bangla terms in place of the well-known English ones veritably sealed the fate of English. Decades of working in a mono-lingual atmosphere had made the government functionaries incapable of communicating with their foreign counterparts. Poor English proficiency of a section of our bureaucrats had reportedly made a mess of our international dealings.

The situation has been changing lately. With the Bangla-centred emotional outpourings largely gone, successive governments have started feeling the heat of the global reality. It's too simple: nations can't move in sectors ranging from trading, international ties, diplomacy and cultural relations without using English. It's good to see English is being attached the similar stress as Bangla. But the dismal aspect to the growth of English remains entrenched in the education sector. Without grooming up English-loving new generations capable of communicating with a global audience, Bangladesh cannot expect to be in the club of fast-developing nations.

Many might feel anguished when they discover the country lagging behind all the South and Southeast Asian countries as shown in the index. The only country that falls behind Bangladesh in English proficiency is Afghanistan. The most depressing part of the episode is Bangladesh trails almost all the middle-income-hopeful nations. Even a long war-torn Sub-Saharan African country like Somalia has emerged impressively English-proficient. In TV interviews after the start of civil war in that country, common Somalis were seen speaking fluent English. The scenes were amazing. It evidently proves despite President Siad Barre's long dictatorial rule of the East African nation, the people of the country widely enjoyed the facilities of education, especially the one related to English learning.

Seeing the Bangladesh-English language interface from a theoretical point of view, the country has been expected to be at ease with English. This is what has been there down the passage of history. The 1952 Language Movement and the 1971 Liberation War did not target English as a language of the rulers. By the time the nation achieved freedom, English had got absorbed with the nation's destiny, along with the country's material wellbeing and exposure to the outside world. Except for the intermittent spells of love for Bangla, the need for learning English had been felt all through. Its great importance to the nation's development can in no way be belittled. Bangla is a great language filled with unique cadence and syntactic magnificence -- not to speak of its effective communicability. Yet due to the periodic dictates of history, English dominates the world finally. We cannot deny this reality.


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