Soumitra Sekhar Dey is a professor of Bangla department at Dhaka University. He talked to Prothom Alo's Farjana Likat and Shameem Reza about the Language Movement, state of Bangla language today and many other issues.
So many people sacrificed their lives for Bangla in 1952. Do you think we lack that love and devotion for the language now?
In the seven decades after the state language movement, a new generation has naturally come up. The matter of emotion will become a little lighter from the generation that staged the language movement in 1952. It is natural for the emotion to dwindle from generation to generation. Another important point is that the last 30 years have seen major global changes. The collapse of the Second World, that is, the socialist states, and the beginning of a unipolar world order. We do not want to compare the new generation with the previous one who carried out the Language Movement.
Due to globalisation, the concept of language has changed for the modern or younger generation somewhat due to the unipolar world order. But we have unity when it comes to our beloved country and in that matter all generations are same. For example, when we talk about the state, our national anthem, our language and geography, we don't see any absence of emotion among all the generations –be it that generation or this. There has been some change in the use of language, but I don't think it has changed the nationalist consciousness or people’s sense of allegiance to the state.
How well does our education system, and overall social parameters, contribute to use only Bangla as a means of communication among the young generation?
It depends on how much the state itself gives importance to the language and how effective the language is in the society. As we see in the case of Bangla language, it is socially valued but not equally valued in official uses. The value of Bangla in the offices is relatively low, especially compared to the English language. Many even think that since they have to be successful in their life, there is a tendency in schools to establish English with less importance towards Bengali. Recently in this month of Language Movement, the government made an announcement to introduce English version education in government primary schools. Where there are not enough teachers to teach Bangla in our primary schools, or children in remote areas have difficulty in going to school, there has been a decision to change the language. Due to these reasons, the interest in Bangla language in schools or other social levels is decreasing day by day.
The point is, whether we value our language or not depends on the attitude of the state towards the language. Our main crisis is that we have not developed any language policy
Speaking of success, there are numerous countries that use their own language in every sector such as Japan, China or many European countries. They are more successful than us...
There is no substitute for mother tongue to become developed. Developed countries have developed in their mother tongue. We must advance through our mother tongue. Even Great Britain has used its own mother tongue in all sectors. The case is different for the countries that are multi-state nation such as India and America. Such countries need a lingua franca. But that is not the case with us. Most importantly Bangladesh emerged from Bangla language. Bangla did not come as the language of Bangladesh. Rather, we named our country on our language.
After independence, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman announced the introduction of Bangla at all levels and also started its implementation. For example, Viqarunnisa Noon School was forced to be converted into Bangla medium school from an English medium one. At the same time Sheikh Mujibur Rahman named our national banks in Bangla - such as Sonali, Rupali, Uttara and Janata.
The point is, whether we value our language or not depends on the attitude of the state towards the language. Our main crisis is that we have not developed any language policy. I have been personally recommending a language policy for a long time. If the state had announced a specific language policy, the tendency to speak in television dramas or write signboards in incorrect Bangla would have decreased. Since the state is an institution, it will make laws and introduce rules. It has its particular infrastructure. So we also have a responsibility to the state. We have to accept the guidelines of the state.
There has been no initiative on language in the last 70 years. We did not succeed after many attempts. For example, during the Pakistani period, the names of newspapers were Ittefaq, Ittihad, Saugat - which are derived from Arabic, Persian and Urdu. Again, during the nationalist movement, all the excellent Bengali magazines like Samakal, Kanthaswar, Shilpakala, Sangbad were published. These are revolutions. Journalists, poets and writers from within the society have used excellent Bangla words. Bangla has developed to the current condition through the writers of the sixties. Our misfortune is that the state did not own it.
What do you think about the quality of colloquial and formal Bangla today especially when the young generation is using a mixture of words from dialects and foreign languages?
Vocabulary is a very important part of language. Those who know more vocabulary are likely to have better command on the language. Only vocabulary will not be enough, one needs to know the use of those words. We can compare it with our socks collection. I may have several pairs of socks. But I wear the one frequently that feels the most comfy. Using words is exactly the same, as we use the words most frequently that we find very easy and comfortable. But when it comes to a standard language we must follow Bangla Academy.
We should accept the rules of standard spelling or pronunciation made by the institution. But the colloquial language cannot be ignored because it is the lifeblood of our language. Those are for informal use.
These are matters of education. We have a misconception that we don't have to learn Bangla, as we can speak in it naturally. This is absolutely wrong. Our big problem is that there is no appreciation for speaking correct Bangla at any level in our country. The family, society, institution or state does not appreciate speaking Bangla correctly and beautifully.
Many argue that standard Bangla means the Bangla used in Kolkata. What is your take on the matter?
It had been the most spread propaganda during Pakistan period. A quarter aired the idea. Now nobody says that standard Bangla means the Bangla spoken in Kolkata. They just insinuate the idea by saying ‘it is not our Bangla.’ First of all, it is not right. We must remember that the geography of a country and language are not the same. If we create a map for Bangla, there will be Purulia of India until Bihar border on the west, Tripura and Assam on the east and the enclaves will be in America Europe or in Canada. Given the broader area, having a standard pronunciation is pertinent. We can speak in colloquial language with our friends and family, but we need a formal language for official uses. This difference is called standard language. In order to internationalise Bangla we must settle for a standard pronunciation. Bangla Academy can play the role of a guardian in this regard.
Acclaimed writer Shawkat Osman once told me that there is no synonymous word of ‘Ajnabi’ in Bangla. ‘Ajnabi’ means a complete unknown person who seems to be very close. Adopting such foreign words would enrich Bangla but that should be done following a guideline
Literary or formal Bangla is not updated often as the language demands. This becomes evident during translating foreign literary works into Bangla. Do you think this affects the quality of translation? How can we resolve this problem?
A language needs a guardian for enrichment and it takes a specific policy. It creates terminology for words that are not in that language. Again, only creating terminology will not work, it must be made popular. Each word is like an image. There are some words that can be translated into Bangla. But there are some expressions that cannot be translated. If there is no Bengali substitute for those foreign words, we can use the foreign words. The most important thing for this is to create terminology and make it popular. Sheikh Mujibur Rahman formed a separate committee for terminology at the Bangla Academy. Besides, translation of books written originally in foreign languages is also very important. Author Humayun Ahmed took leave from Dhaka University and translated a book on chemistry so that students could read about chemistry in Bengali.
Sometimes it seems that a large number of people are confused about the use and pronunciation of basic Bangla letters which are almost similar to hear. For example, many do not understand the difference between র (ra) and ড় (rra) or ছ (chha) and স (sa) and the difference those letters make after being used in words. Do you think our elementary schools have anything to do with this?
This is because of lack of awareness in using the language. In general, there is a lack of proper beginning of teaching and learning Bangla letters. For example, the whole nation is confusedwhether the first Bangla letter is ‘aw’ (অ) or ‘sware-aw’ (স্বরে অ). It has almost been seven decades of the Language Movement but unfortunately we could not reach a consensus about the very first Bangla letter. This is a collective failure. The case with র (ra) and ড় (rra) or ছ (chha) and স (sa) is just like that. We write letters but those are the symbols of sounds. When we speak, we actually phonate the sounds. Many of us write র (ra) and ড় (rra) interchangeably as they have not been taught properly. Another example is the pronunciation or rather mispronunciation of third (ই) and fourth vowel (ঈ) of Bangla language. These mistakes are made in the very beginning of schooling. Our families do not discuss these things as well. Above all, as I said above, there is no appreciation for speaking Bangla properly. People won’t feel interested in learning something if there is no appreciation.
Just rote learning instead of asking questions, will not take us anywhere. There has to be questions about the use of ‘K’ in writing ‘Knee’. ‘K’ seems to be unnecessary if we try to write the word ‘Knee’ following the pronunciation only; ‘nee’ would have been enough. Similarly, using ‘Ue’ seems to be unnecessary in writing ‘Tongue’. Finding out short cut methods will make us colonised, but this time mentally. We might have big buildings but there won’t be freedom in thinking. Currently, everyone, including the state, has been aiming to build ‘big buildings’. But for the freedom in thinking, learning mother tongue properly is a must.
At the same time, if Bangla language does not get its due importance in the education sector, offices and all the walks of life, if the use of Bangla language is not encouraged, it will become a weaker language in the next 25 years
Our young people have a tendency to use English or Hindi words to show off their smarts though many of them do not learn these languages properly. What do you think?
Language, including the mother tongue, has to be learned. But somehow, we think there is no need to learn Bangla. Our families do not discuss these things. There is no appreciation anywhere for speaking Bangla properly. The languages are being used haphazardly here. The same is happening with the use of foreign languages as well.
Youths adopt words from foreign languages creatively to show off their smarts. I’m amazed with their creativity. Acclaimed writer Shawkat Osman once told me that there is no synonymous word of ‘Ajnabi’ in Bangla. ‘Ajnabi’ means a complete unknown person who seems to be very close. Adopting such foreign words would enrich Bangla but that should be done following a guideline. Many think that adopting foreign words suggest the language is alive. But adopting foreign words by sweeping away local words would shrink our dictionary and ultimately weaken the language.
What role the institutes like Bangla Academy play when the use of language is changing very fast in this age of worldwide web and internet and social networks?
Bangla Academy or the institutions like that actually has nothing much to do in this regard as people use the social media in their bedroom. Facebook is there since 2004. It has affected our lives so much in just 16 years. So, it’s only normal to think that it will have greater impact in the future. What a person will write on Facebook or Twitter depends on him. What we need is more self-control. Powerful state heads tweet announcing their policies. Acclaimed athletes, artistes also tweet. Now, every word written on social media is very important. Most of us don’t know how to use social media. Actually, we don’t know how to use internet. Despite having differences in age and backgrounds, my children and I are using the same platform! This is not so in developed countries. They have block system. Students use internet all the time but cannot go beyond their block. We don’t have that control.
We are going to face another problem in the future - because of online education system, it will become well-nigh impossible for parents to take away the mobile phones from their children. What I want to say is, familial, academic and individual awareness and responsibility is more important than the role of Bangla Academy. Bangla Academy, as I know it, neither has the manpower nor have we developed it in that fashion.
Sometimes we hear scholars talking about politics in choosing one form of language over another within a linguistic system. If you clarify the nature of this politics…
There is nothing outside politics. Whenever we go to the market, we look for profit in two ways – economically and in fulfilling contentment. But overall, it is the satisfaction that becomes most important. It is the same with language. From that point of view, there has to be a standard form of pronunciation of Bangla for people across the globe. We must reach in a consensus about the standard pronunciation. There would be variations in dialect. But it would not be good to debate over the standard form of pronunciation as it is already there.
For example, pronunciation of English language is more varied than Bangla around the world. The pronunciation in South Africa is different from that of India. At the same time, both of them are different from England. But when we take TOEFL or IELTS exams to prove our efficiency in English, we are judged against a standard form of pronunciation. This standard form should be there in Bangla as well. My request would be not to do politics about the standard form of Bangla language as has been set by the Bangla Academy. The dialects will be there as those are the lifeblood of a language. But we must not compromise with the standard form of language.
You said above about encouraging the use of Bangla properly and political leaders at the centre of composing policies. Do you see any political leader announcing to award people if they find mistakes in posters and inscriptions published in his/her name in the future?
Good point. Let me answer this question in another way. The Bangla pronunciation of our incumbent education minister is very good. Do our schools and other educational institutions follow that? I mean, why can’t the teachers and students pronounce properly when the education minister is speaking so wonderfully? We’ve examples, just need to follow that.
Your projection of the state of Bangla language in the next 25 years …
I wish Bangla language would be richer in the next 25 years but I don’t see hope that my wishes would be fulfilled. The reason is, Bangla as a language would more chaotic if we don’t get any ‘language policy’. From this interview I am saying, a ‘language policy’ is a must for Bangla. Youths cannot be blamed. Foreign words will be used indiscriminately and they would use those words thinking that as a sign of smartness. At the same time, if Bangla language does not get its due importance in the education sector, offices and all the walks of life, if the use of Bangla language is not encouraged, it will become a weaker language in the next 25 years. We cannot allow that to happen.
We think, those who are in power, from the highest echelon of the state, have sincere love with the language. Just we need an implementation of their wishes. If we can do that, we will go far. Aspirations and potential of the nation are huge but the path ahead is not clear, rather blurry.