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Should one language ever take precedence over another?

  • Published at 02:04 pm February 19th, 2017
  • Last updated at 02:21 pm February 19th, 2017
Should one language ever take precedence over another?
The term “confused desi” was coined decades ago to describe youngsters from the South Asian region living in English-speaking countries and having an identity crisis, torn between their desi norms and values, and Western ways of life. While not going into that today, we are here to discuss the struggles and confusions affecting students in English and Bangla medium schools. In a recent Focus Group Discussion (FGD) conducted by Dhaka Tribune, we try to shed new light on the subject matter. Ayaan, a 22 year old English school graduate, was asked how well he was taught Bangla in school. “We did have a few books but we weren't taught the language extensively. There was a lot of emphasis on English and Mathematics, but Bangla classes were very basic. The teachers just made sure that we can speak and read it, but even then, many of my batch mates cannot read Bangla fluently to this date,” he said.

The importance of appearing English

We asked the participating students – why is it so important to learn English? The response we got from them gave the impression that their guardians and parents have always made a very clear connection between knowing English and getting a good job. Shuchi, 26, another English school graduate, believes there are still colonial influences for the importance that is attached to English. “We were always told that the English are superior, and there was a huge focus on English education and following English norms. I think the colonial hangover is still very much a reality for us today, not just in Bangladesh, but in the South Asian region.” However, while there is definitely an exaggerated importance attached to learning English, there are negative connotations attached to it as well. According to 18-year-old Ishita, even teachers at school have labelled her a snob for studying the English version of the HSC. “Meanwhile, English school kids will still look down on me for not being in their cool, private schools. It's like I'm caught between the worst of both worlds." Sohana, 42, has a 13-year-old daughter in an English medium school. According to her, “English medium students are given an education that's internationally recognised. It will be easier for my child to get a good job, go overseas for higher education and adjust in a foreign land without having to deal with any culture shock.”

Learning in a language we know

54 year old Ahsan has sent three children to Bangla schools, and vehemently differed with Sohana's testimony, arguing that the two mediums of education create negative divisions in the country. “My children were taught about our heritage, culture and the language that we fought so hard for, and they are all well-settled with good careers. We do have a lot of improvements to make in our schools, but it's not the curriculum that's flawed, it's the schools that don't stick to the standards.” Medical student Sumit, 23, echoed Ahsan but also expressed dissatisfaction about how most Bangladeshi university programs are devised in English. “Those of us coming from Bangla medium schools have a really hard time studying the medical books in English,” he says. Linh Nhi, 27, a high school teacher from China currently visiting Bangladesh, tells us how education in Chinese universities are completely conducted in their mother tongue. “The majority of students are enrolled in the Chinese medium. We prioritise learning our mother tongue well before learning anything else, which is why you will probably meet a lot of people who do not know English at all if you ever go to China.” Student counsellor Pallab, 31, says, “China is not the only country that has university programs in their mother tongue, countries such as Russia, Germany, France and Italy are on the same boat as well.” He says that most of these countries pay more emphasis on their medical programs that are developed using their mother tongue as the medium of instruction: “Their medical students are meant to treat patients in their own country, which is why medical studies in their own language is mandatory.” At the end of the day,  However, what came across in our interviews is the fact that the second language of instruction in all schools are falling way below the mark – Bangla students do not feel confident about their English, and English students often have a worrying disdain for learning their mother tongue properly, an attitude that is often fostered by their teachers and guardians. In the month of February, it is imperative that we, while honouring our mother tongue, stop judging different languages according to different standards, and learn how to value all languages equally.
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