February is here again, and with it, time for introspection. What this implies is a reassessment of our commitment to the mother tongue and the language rights of the ethnic minorities and the marginalized. February also inspires us to renew our commitment to culture and all the practices it encourages, including the way we conduct our private and public lives, our politics, education, and indeed our material and spiritual lives. One unambiguous message February sends every year is that the stock-taking should not be an annual ritual, but should keep us pre-occupied throughout the year.The irony though is that we suddenly wake up when February arrives, and begin recite a hurried agenda, mostly to ourselves.
As a result, most of our commitments remain unfulfilled. For example, we have not been successful in making Bangla the medium of instruction in higher education; we have failed to protect and give due rights to the mother tongues of the ethnic minorities; we haven’t been able to use Bangla in the most desirable way – that is, in its most graceful and creative forms. We also did nothing when generations of children were denied access to the written form of the language. As a result, Bangla as it is used today is a weakened, eclectic language, which is continuously invaded by borrowed words from other languages – English, and even Hindi-- replacing perfectly usable Bangla words. What pains me is our tendency to sacrifice even our verb words for English equivalents. As a result, a fusion language, ‘Banglish’, now dominates private and public conversations.
If Bangla appears to be in peril of losing out to English (English has already established its supremacy in our higher education scene, in the business of the higher courts and indeed of the corporate world), we have allowed many ethnic languages to perish, without taking any measures to protect them. And one way to protect them would have been their use in education. Pessimists point out that these languages have died, or dying because there are not enough users. But number can’t be a consideration in matters of preservation and use. A language is a living entity – and if every life counts, a language should count as well.
While our record of preserving, enriching and championing mother languages has not been exemplary, our efforts to promote education- which can only be provided through languages – have not been up to the mark either. We pride ourselves for making primary education universal, and secondary, higher secondary and tertiary education affordable, and cite statistics of high level primary intakes, the increasing participation of girls and the decreasing rates of drop outs, but we forget that about 30% people in the country lack literacy. What this means that nearly one in three or four children in the country cannot read or write. This is a sobering statistic that suggests they are denied the best use of language. They are condemned to live their lives using only the oral form of the language.
And what about our practice of Bangla in the various mediums of culture –in literature, in films and television, in the media, on the stage, for example? Literature, among all the forms mentioned, fares the best, simply because literature demands the most productive and innovative use of language and the most precious investment of both creative and critical imagination. In cinema, there was a classical phase when all forms of the language – regional dialects, street slangs and family language registers as well as a standardized Bangla were used, which truly reflected our language variety. But over the years, the standard has deteriorated. Today, Bangla used in our cinema, in many cases, is a fusion language, veering mostly towards the colloquial and an invented ‘Dhakaia Bangla’. In the FM radio broadcasts, Bangla has become ‘Banglish’, on the pretext that this is the language of the youth. Newspapers still persist with a standard language, but television, particularly the dramas, Bangla is showing signs of deterioration.
If we look at the language situation in other countries, we see how all the forms of a language coexist, without any overlaps or corruption. German, French or Dutch, as spoken by the users of those languages, are not ‘fusion’ languages, as Bangla is, in the sense that there are no unnecessary borrowings. We all know that there is no pure language in the world, and that all languages borrow from one another, but the borrowings are appropriated in such a way that these get entrenched in the use patterns of the receiving language. Bangla has also borrowed extensively from other languages, including English, but these have been overwhelmingly noun words, not adjectives or verbs, and have become Bengalized – much as ‘haspatal’ (hospital), ‘astabol’ (stable) or ‘tebil’ (table).
But nowadays, one uses, without batting an eyelid, phrases like ‘send koro’ and ‘like koro’ which show our gleeful abandonment of the perfect Bangla alternatives. Many accept this practice as natural, but why is this ‘natural’ way of using language only visible in casual use of Bangla?
If we really like to believe that the language movement of 1952 was for empowering our mother languages and enabling their users to continually enrich them, we should take a fresh vow to perform the following tasks:
Only our genuine commitment to the mother language can ensure its health.