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Problems and prospects of using Bangla in higher education

Helal Uddin Ahmed | February 21, 2023 00:00:00

Bangla is the mother tongue of the Bangalis and the state language of Bangladesh. With a heritage spanning more than a millennium, its progress carries the imprints of innumerable struggles and sacrifices. Supreme sacrifices had to be made with loss of numerous lives for getting recognition as the state language when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan (1947-71). It is beyond any doubt that the language movement was the precursor to Bangladesh's independence struggle. The sacrifices made by Bangali youths to establish the honour and dignity of the Bangla language were unprecedented in world history. The epoch-making announcement by UNESCO on 17 November 1999 declaring the Language Martyrs' Day of Bangladesh (21st February) as the International Mother Language Day was therefore a fitting tribute to the language martyrs by the global community.

Language plays a vital role in society because it is not only a mode of communication but is also a way of life. It bears historical, cultural, religious, as well as ethnic marks of a people. It is for this reason that the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared the Language Martyrs' Day of Bangladesh as a commemorative occasion for observing globally. The global organisation declared in its statement that languages were the most powerful instruments for preserving and developing tangible and intangible heritages of mankind. Therefore, the link between language and national identity is important for building a nation; moreover, a pragmatic language policy helps to promote this unity. Ironically, the Government of Bangladesh has played a limited role in this sphere till now, and has so far refrained from framing an official language policy.

In his book "Higher Education in Bangla Language: Expectations and Obstacles" (Bangla Bhashay Uchcha Shiksha: Prottasha O Antoray, February 2020), the eminent linguist Professor Swarochish Sarkar has dwelt elaborately on the problems and prospects of using Bangla in higher education, research and governance. Sarkar has identified certain obstacles to this aspiration, which include: habitual tendency; inferiority complex with regard to Bangla; adaptation with new technologies that reflect bias for English; excuse of a global village by citing the need for knowing other international languages like English; and the lack of strict law, rules and regulations for application of Bangla in all spheres. All these have huge implications for the use of Bangla in higher education and research.

Institutionally speaking, higher education in Bangla started its journey during the 20th century, more specifically since the 1940s. Some Bangla text-books published from Kolkata during the 1960s were included in the syllabi of some universities in East Pakistan. The demand for these books rose after the independence of Bangladesh and Bangla Academy came forward to publish text-books for higher education in Bangla. Alongside books on humanities, even text-books on natural and applied science were published by the Academy since the 1970s. The government also made sizeable allocations for such publications during the 1980s and 1990s. Apart from Bangla Academy, many other Dhaka-based publishing houses also published some text-books for higher levels in Bangla during the period. The number of such text-books published from Bangladesh reached around five thousand in 1993.

But despite this promising trend, Bangla text-books started to be ignored in higher education since the commencement of the 21st century by both public and private universities of Bangladesh. Numerous supplementary text-books written in Bangla have even been excluded from the list of prescribed books. This trend has been observed even in colleges controlled by the National University (NU), where the English wave still thrives. The syllabuses at NU are prepared centrally, and Bangla text-books have a negligible share in those. But unfortunately, the prescribed text-books in English are often not available in the market. As a result, the pupils have to mostly rely on notes provided by their teachers as well as note-books found in the market. Setting of questions also demonstrates a bias for English with the exception of the Open University and National University. Whereas Questions in both English and Bangla were set even during the first decade of the new millennium, such practice is now rarely seen with English versions getting a clear upper-hand.

Professor Swarochish Sarkar has identified several reasons for lack of research in Bangla language at higher levels. Firstly, at least one of the examiners for PhD theses have to be selected from outside the country, and Bangla-speaking examiners are rare except in West Bengal and Tripura states of India. Secondly, the relevant rules and regulations of most departments and institutions under Bangladeshi universities do not support preparation of dissertations in Bangla. Thirdly, the relevant acts in neighbouring countries stipulate the use of English in writing post-graduate dissertations, which also has an adverse impact on the situation in Bangladesh. Even at the Vishwabharati University of West Bengal established by Poet Rabindranath Tagore, the relevant ordinance says: "English shall be the medium of instruction as well as the language for writing the theses in PhD program". Similar provisions exist in many universities of Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Sarkar laments that these examples encourage the policy-makers and academics in Bangladesh to opt for English, but they forget that the language-context and reality of Bangladesh are quite different. The fourth reason cited by Sarkar for dearth of research in Bangla at higher levels is inferiority complex of the researchers themselves. The fifth reason cited is easy availability of reference materials in English language including those in the internet compared to Bangla.

Overcoming so many impediments in the quest for wider use of Bangla language in higher education of Bangladesh cannot be easy. For this to happen, genuine patriotism with love for mother language Bangla needs to blossom in Bangladesh. Side by side, the government needs to take some stringent measures for promoting Bangla in higher education, which should be included in a broad-based language policy to be promulgated by the government. Besides, the education policy of the country should also be amended to emphasize the need for adopting Bangla in higher education.

Sarkar has identified three measures that should be implemented by institutions of higher education in Bangladesh. Firstly, by showing deference to the provisions of Article-17 of Bangladesh Constitution for ensuring free and compulsory education, the colleges and universities of the country should follow uniform policies that designate Bangla as the first language and English as the second one. This should find reflection in their syllabuses and curricula. Secondly, a pre-condition of publishing one research paper in Bangla may be made mandatory for promotions of university cum college teachers. And thirdly, preparation and publication of research papers related to Bangladesh in Bangla language (instead of English) should be encouraged at higher levels.

Moreover, the country's language policy should provide clear instructions on the application of Bangla at different institutional levels including in research and higher education. There should also be stipulations on foreign languages, the local or regional dialects, and languages of the ethnic minorities, etc. The 'Spirit of Ekush' can never materialise fully unless Bangla is accorded its due place and status in the social, economic and educational domains of Bangladesh.

Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly. Email: [email protected]

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