Limited Fluency in Mother Tongue: Are English Medium Students Really the Villains?
The pointless yet compelling debate on Bengali Medium versus English Medium schools is a harmless discussion as long as it remains as just a mild disagreement between the students of the respective curricula. But it becomes a problem when the debate escalates into a nationwide discussion in which reputed television channels and newspapers start targeting and attacking young students for being part of a particular academic background. For instance, in February, the commemorative month of the Bengali Language Movement, reporters showing up at English Medium schools, probing the students with questions related to Bangla language, making them nervous on camera, and then telecasting it in the evening news – was almost like an annual ritual for these news media channels, until COVID-19 happened.
A journalist accosting an individual and asking them questions they struggle to answer- is old news. The problem here is that we, as a nation, collectively normalise and sometimes even glorify many things that should never be normalised. Somehow, making news out of how a 10-year-old is unable to name all of the twelve Bengali months in front of a TV camera and then telecasting it as the child’s lack of recognition of Bengali culture due to the influence of their institution – is appreciated by many Bengali language enthusiasts. Moreover, news like this is usually supported by many stances and viewpoints on how an international curriculum in schools is paving the way for the dematerialisation of the Bengali language among the nation’s youth.
An unbiased audience will watch or read this news, agree with the message it delivers and go about their day, having no reason to do any sort of “fact-checking”. Rightly so, nobody will wonder if the child in question was scared or nervous before their mind went blank and they failed to answer a common general knowledge question related to their mother tongue. Or perhaps, they had been asked other questions too, which they answered correctly, but the segment was edited out. What about the impact of this public embarrassment on the child’s mental health afterwards?
It makes sense for veteran intellectuals to raise voices in favour of preserving the language that was a result of years of perseverance, valour, and patriotic spirit of our ancestors. Particularly during February, the month that we dedicate to our fallen heroes, the topic of Bengali having to compete with foreign languages to protect its supremacy among the hearts of Bangladeshis naturally comes up. However, the collective fingers raised at English medium institutions for being the prime facilitators of the devaluation of Bengali in our country hints at the existence of a fundamental resentment towards the western culture. The lack of proper research and absence of sound facts in the news, blogs, and internet memes accusing English medium schools of cultural and linguistic imperialism shows how the aforementioned resentment is unjustly thrown at young children in the name of patriotism.
It shouldn’t come as a shock that an institution that follows an international curriculum and pattern for its coursework uses English as the official language for written and verbal communication. Both English medium and English version schools encourage and sometimes mandate speaking in English even for casual conversations inside the school premises. But even though the practice of Bengali is evidently less than in Bengali medium schools, there is no reason to believe that students in these schools have zero touches with Bengali culture. Besides having at least two separate courses for Bengali grammar and Bengali literature, many students in English Medium schools have Bengali as one of their subjects for their IGCSE exams. Alongside global history and geography, the students are sincerely taught Bengali history and geography, as mandated by the Ministry of Education of Bangladesh. These schools also don’t fall short when it comes to celebrating national occasions that have great sentimental value to us Bengalis. Dance, music, painting, poetry- Bengali culture is prevalent in every form of art practised in these schools. How much of this is shown in the February issues of Bangladeshi newspapers?
There is no denying that some people actually don’t bother learning Bengali properly and take pride in their broken Bengali accent. And some are bullied and ridiculed when they fail to correctly pronounce an English word. Hence, while schools are responsible for shaping a child’s academic future, families should not ignore their responsibilities of teaching a child the significance of the Bengali language and culture and implanting the pride and sentiment associated with Bengali in the child’s heart. Now it might come as a surprise that the “English medium community” in Bangladesh is actually made up of more people cherishing their culture than those othering them. So the few bad apples don’t represent the entire category; thanks to poorly researched news articles, the misconception will probably never die.
The portrayal of English Medium and English Version students in Bangladesh as having subpar competency in written and spoken Bengali may be justified as highlighting the unfortunate dilution of the usage of Bangla among youngsters. However, this portrayal also means attacking students from the international curriculum, segregating them as “different” from others in their own locality, and questioning their patriotism. It also sparks the age-old exhausting antagonism between Bengali and English Medium students. When more emphasis should be given to uniting the two antitheses, attention is shifted towards widening the differences between them. Celebrating our nation’s linguistic freedom should not have to come at the expense of dividing the nation into two extremes.
Who or what, then, is responsible for English’s taking precedence over Bengali as a language in Bangladesh? The answer calls for a whole other article. It’s true that the fact that English is still held in higher regard than Bangla in Bangladesh is upsetting, considering the historical significance of the Bangla language and the colonial history of the English language. But it doesn’t take a genius to understand that in a 21st century-globalised world, the proliferation of western lifestyle- language, food, fashion, romance- is inevitable. Superiority of English has been persisting for years, and English medium institutions play a much smaller role in it than you’d think. And it’s not even just the advocates of English medium schools who put the language on a pedestal. The use of English for the coursework of medical colleges and certain university departments, measuring candidates’ qualifications in the job sector, bonding with people over a TV show- indicates that whether we like it or not, we have to embrace this language to survive in a paradoxical society that also contempts the choice to study in an international curriculum at a young age.