Multilingualism or Monolingualism? -Wahidul Islam and Ifrith Islam
A nation which heavily relies on the manpower export to earn foreign currencies and contributes credibly to the peacekeeping missions of the United Nations in and around the world don’t afford monolingualism. Bangladeshis are exposed to the nationals of 61 countries of the world as one crore out of sixteen work abroad. From the academics, doctors, engineers, labourers to the traders have to come in contact with cross-border nationals. Once Bangladeshi traders used to export three items but now the number of export items has reached as many as three thousand which necessitates being multilingual.
A nation will afford monolingualism only then when their language is being learnt by other nations, their universities are enrolling foreign students en masse, their teachers are publishing in world’s leading journals, exporters are amassing wealth from the world over. On top of all when the nation is a trend setter in the world, having best army, best experts of different sectors, best production arms and ammunition etc. A nation’s linguistic nationalism can be partly appreciated only when their human resource development they are as good as or better than those of Scandinavian countries like Norway, Sweden, Denmark etc. If their experts sell consultancy services abroad, they can enjoy the warmth of monolinguistic hype. If the tally of your publications reaches the number of spines published by a developed country like Britain. The number of books published by the eight-crore strong nation amounts to around two lakh while every year China is publishing nearly five lakh titles which contain and detail the secret of their rise to the world stage. Compared to that per year merely four thousand Bangladeshi books are printed and displayed during Ekushey Book Fair which is prime festival for the publication spree in the country. This small number of publications and the absence of massive translation of foreign language books, which are worthy of guiding Bangladesh to be one of the leading countries in the world, explain why we are lagging behind. Look at India— a real multilingual country and Sri Lanka which declared 2012 as the year of learning third language.
Nineteen forties for the Rohingyas, 1950s for the Bengali-speaking people of the West Bengal and 1960s for the Bangladeshis were crucial periods for the linguistic conceitedness though these years contributed greatly to the sustenance of Bengali linguistic identity and partly to the nation-building. Bengalis of the East, among these three peoples of three countries — India, Myanmar and Bangladesh — had to sacrifice blood for language. February 21st, when the bloodshed of Salam, Barkat, Rafiq, Jabbar took place has turned not only into a red letter day but also International Mother Language day now.
The article aims to explore why Bengali-speaking people in this part of the world lack the aptitude of being multilingual (Multilingualism, May 2014) and the phobia of losing their mother-tongue. It is very conspicuous that in motherland of Dr Muhammad Shahidullah people are failing to be multilingual. He was a language legend, having command over 18 languages. His multilingualism didn’t bar him from writing books like Bangla Bhashar Itibritya, Bangla Shahityer Itikatha, Bangla Bhashar Ancholik Abhidhan etc in Bengali. He neither forgot his own mother tongue nor stopped being enlightened. Syed Mujtoba Ali, who used to publish Arabic journal, Thaqafatul Hind, knew as many as 15 languages not at the expense of Bangla. He wrote Chacha Kahini, Deshe Bidheshe etc books in Bangla. Dr Muhammad Shahidullah and Syed Mujtoba Ali are merely two of the thousand Bengalis who are real multilingual. Another multilingual person is Abdul Ghani who could speak Urdu, Bengali as his native longue, English which he learnt in Dhaka Collegiate School, where he was the student of the very first batch, and his expertise on Arabic and Persian was at home. Being the patron of Urdu and Persian literature in Dhaka, he observed the Shi’a Remembrance of Muharram and contributed to renovate Hoseni Dalan, the Shi’ite centre in Dhaka, even though he was a Sunni himself. He also had close relations with the Hindu, Armenian and European community.
Relatively young language Bengali has rich collection of loan words from different languages like Asian as well as neighbouring Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, Urdu etc. Bengali is an Indo-Aryan language. The language has it uses 37 sounds, even though the direct ancestors of Bengali are Prakrit. Bangla has lots of Sanskrit loan words. As it has 45 percent of unmodified Sanskrit words. Bangla has lots of Arabic loan words. In our empirical search we could collect as many as 1100 Arabic loan words used in Bangla. As Bangladesh is predominantly a Muslim country whose citizens tend to learn the language of their religious books like the holy Quran and Hadith though there is a sense of amnesia towards regional language like Arabic. There is a delicate tension between Arabic and Sanskrit languages. As most of the Bengali-speaking people are Muslims having obligation to learn Arabic as the language of religious texts on the one hand. While a good number of Hindus tend to align with Sanskrit as the language of their religious texts on the other. This sense of difference leaves a legacy of tussle between the leaders and academicians of these communities in the Bengali-speaking parts of the world. Arabic is nurtured by a section of academics and political leaders who are the beneficiary of petro-dollar sent by the Bangladeshi expatriates working in Arabic speaking countries. Around fifty lakh people work in Middle Eastern countries and earn foreign currencies to send to Bangladesh. The entrance of Persian Language in Bengal occurred in pre-historic period. The language was expanded in Bengal to such extent that literary practice too also expanded to extent. The first book written in Bengali was in Persian Language and it was translation of Sanskrit book Amrita Kunda.
As one of the neo-liberal nations of the world Bangla is borrowing English words one after another. English is taught here from Grade I as an international language. But as per the Edgar Sneider’s English language scale Bangladesh is still a mid-level country.
Bangladesh is largely ethnically homogeneous and its name derives from the Bengali ethno-linguistic group which comprises 98% of the population. There are many dialects of Bengali spoken throughout the region. The dialect spoken by those in Chittagong and Sylhet are particularly distinctive. There as many as 40 ethnic languages spoken apart from Bengali, the predominant one (Ethnologue, 2017).
Muslims who were linguistically accommodative and interested about learning the languages of the sons of the soil they live on could really take the leadership of the land or country such as Bengalis. But Muslims who didn’t learn the language of the land they live in faced all sorts of discriminations including extinctions such as Rohingyas. The Muslim as well as political leaderships in the Subcontinent took stance to promote language of the soil viz. Bengali. This leadership financed the language to flourish, rewarded the poets and litterateurs who practiced and developed the language greatly. Even the Bengali Muslim litterateurs Magan Thakur, Alaol, Doulat Kazi could attract Foreign Direct Investment for the development of Bengali poetry and prose. Thanks to their contribution as mother-tongue and as the seventh-most spoken language in the world next to Arabic thrives with the weigh it carries. But linguistic alienation of Rohingyas scholars’ of later days chose Urdu as the medium of education in place of Myanmarese language. Now Rohingyas are facing genocide for many reasons and illiteracy in Myanmarese language and their absence in contribution to the development of their state language is one of them. They failed to become multilingual learning international language like English as well as Arabic as a regional and the language of their religious texts. Personally I met some Rohingyas in London who told me that their community does practice English even settling in England.
Being Bangladeshis, we are proud of our language since 1952. We use Bangla language to talk, write, and express our feelings even though a lot has changed since then. Our previous generation, that is, our parent are used to communicate with us in one way, but in our generation the system of interaction has changed due to globalisation. Now we know the importance of being multilingual, learning international English as well as regional languages like Arabic, Hindi and Chinese. Our up-coming generation are becoming more different, i.e. more intelligent and advanced than their previous generations. Moreover, with the change of the education system, these children are learning more and more languages than their predecessors only to survive in this globalised world. n