The disappearing language and the Bengali imagination

Nadia Chowdhury Kahn
Published : 26 Feb 2014, 03:23 PM
Updated : 26 Feb 2014, 03:23 PM

As a Bangladeshi of Bengali descent, it is often fun to see how much Bengali has disintegrated into nothingness over the years.

A recent article by Ahmed Zayeef titled "80% Fail to Get Passing Mark" looked at the rate of students who fail to gain admission to Dhaka University found that 80% of the student force upon applying, could not get admission. Another article by Ahmed Zayeef (yes, he is brilliant on this subject) titled "Bangla Skills on The Wane" looked at the number of students who failed to acquire a pass in Bangla to be 55%, and a percentage of 38% gaining a fail in both English and Bangla.

It may even be OK not to know a foreign language but your own mother tongue!

Kind of preposterous, but you know….colonisation was for a reason.

But first, let me tell you a story.

My first visit to my first book fair in Dhaka was with my father which ended up in a book purchase of Humayun Ahmed's "Botol Bhut", a most interesting tale. This book recounted the tales of a boy who acquires a genie in a bottle who solves all of his problems, on the condition that he has to believe ghosts exist. When the protagonist fails to live up to the promise he made to the Rabindranath Tagore look-alike from whom he acquired the little ghost, he is abandoned by the little jinx. The gist of the story: don't make promises and fail to live up to your standards or you will pay.

On the occasion of the International Mother Language Day on February 21st, my Bangladeshi and Bengali friends all over the world have to come to terms with the fact that ours is a dying language, in the sense that not only is it not globally known, but with the advent of other languages such as Hindi and the already existing English in our curriculum, Bengalis will have to work harder to ensure next generations know it just as well.

With political situations as dire as it is around the world, it is worth noting the fact — and the tragedy — my fellowmen do not know who the national poet Nazrul Islam is, but heaven be damned if they do not know who One Direction is (this, especially true for Westernised younger generations who seem to be in so many positions of emerging power and also, gaining identity first and foremost, through Westernisation).

In Bangladesh, where lawlessness and crime is an aspect of daily life –people tend to be careful in order to survive and retain whatever they have gathered. Except for the "mentally retarded" who like to give away what is theirs to others, the significance and the urgency of relating to cultural practices and norms is what keeps people alive on a regular basis.

In terms of language, where is the caution? The urgency to retain it for future generations?

And not just through downloadable Bengali PDF books — although that would be handy in the soon-to-be extinct printing industry.

But where is the practice? Where is the cultivation?

Dying languages is a very real phenomenon. And for us Bangladeshis, a lack of global relevance in respect to the preservation of our national language could well be the real threat.

In terms of global relevance, take a look at Hindi and Mandarin, the national languages of those two big giants, India and China. As both countries are major economic centres in today's world, there will be an effort from both local and international locations to preserve both languages, including other derivates if existing and arising from both these two languages.

On the other hand, Bangladesh has not been able to become  a major economic centre and as such, at times there are awkward moments of people asking me "but is Bangladesh part of Pakistan/India", so you all speak Hindi, right"?

Ah well. Looks like nobody ever consulted an atlas ever in their lives.


Privilege and power always existed for a reason, it seems.

In order for Bangla to become a highly marketable and therefore, salvageable product worthy for preservation for future preservation, Bangladesh must take actions to make it valuable as a world language backed by aspirations of world power. To do that, Bangladesh must first strengthen its economy, become a world power and treat its minorities with respect.

Greed and malice is part of the global collective history and is also, part of our history.

Even if we want to make things better, rarely do they ever become better just because there is good intention.

Despite opportunities in funding, "aid" and a plethora of resources targeted toward salvaging culture, a certain lack of interest amongst Bangladeshis to cultivate one's own culture and language beyond the superficial is one of the greatest barriers we must overcome to ensure our language is retained for future generations — a thought perhaps, which continues to grow and earn some respect.

We are killing our economy with our politics and our culture with a frivolity and it's this combination that Bengali may disappear as a language worth respecting even if millions speak the same.

Let us not go there.

Nadia Chowdhury, an aspiring writer, is a graduate from York University, Canada.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher