The price of inequality

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Our attitude towards English-language proficiency is the opposite of egalitarian

If we truly cared about being egalitarian, then the placement of Bangladesh as a country with one of the least English-proficient populations should have rung alarm bells when the report came out two weeks ago from the respected EF First Foundation. 

As if to underscore the applied side of the equation, the very next week, one of the Cricket Premier League’s South African coaches pointed out that the biggest obstacle to coaching is the fact that his charges simply do not understand basic English.

The irony of this cannot be overstated: A former British colony where one of the few benefits of that colonization was the diffusion of the English language across wide swathes of the educated populace, Bangladesh’s people were now more inept in communicating in English than their counterparts in Vietnam, Indonesia, and Belarus.

The reaction amongst the intelligentsia and political rulers was, well, crickets (the insects, that is.) That is, given human nature, only to be expected. After all, you’re unlikely to find the children of anyone in the higher echelons of the ruling or the intellectual class going about their education in Bangladesh. 

Most of the wards of these people are ensconced safely in the English-only boarding schools in Darjeeling, Kodaikanal, and Ajmer or already at university or in career fields in North America, Britain, and Australasia. Plenty of political and cultural hay is to be made by regularly mouthing off Amori Bangla bhasha, and all the more better if one’s own progeny doesn’t have to suffer the consequences of the short-sighted policies that follow such cheap populist theatrics. 

If anything, such a hypocritical approach makes perfect sense for the astute parent: Why not avoid competition in the MNC job market for my son or daughter who comes home after a very English-immersive education in the West? 

It is a perfect application of the Bengali proverb Dhori maachh, na chhui pani. 

The price of this cheap populism is anything but cheap.

Cricketers not getting the finer points of fast bowling on lush natural green pitches may be of little consequence to many. Of far more importance is the cutting off from immense opportunities in education, commerce, and quality of life while others move in with gusto into the space left vacant by an otherwise aspiring and bright middle class that cannot communicate in English at a world class level. 

Never mind India, even the Philippines, Pakistan, and Vietnam have become destinations for North American and European companies’ call centres, while the less said about Bangladesh — ostensibly as educated as those other three countries — the better. 

The proportion of Bangladeshi students in universities abroad who have to spend a semester or a year — and a whole lot of money — in English immersion classes before starting their regular coursework is much higher than their counterparts from Pakistan and India; as a college teacher and administrator I have witnessed this year after year. 

The price keeps climbing in the realm of applied knowledge, where Bangladeshi academics and practitioners are virtually non-existent in the global academic journals, which are almost entirely in English in every scholarly and professional discipline. 

Sure, many social media platforms have catered to those who communicate in Bengali; but Facebook and Twitter are not the conduits of actual, peer reviewed, solid knowledge. The multi-million dollar investments from Fortune 500 companies not made in Bangladesh but instead put in neighbouring countries with more pragmatic policies on the English language … well, we will never know. 

You get the point. Cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face is a silly and costly way to make policy.

It’s not that some governments in Bangladesh haven’t seen the proverbial writing on the wall and tried to fix it finally: The first post-Ershad democratic government did open up national school examinations in English and allowed the cable-carried transmission of CNN, connecting to the world. 

But Bangladesh has also regressed since then, when it comes to public policy regarding English: Ill-advised “drives” against English signboards on streets; astronomical import duties on English language books and periodicals; a strange effort to force all court pleadings in Bengali when the laws themselves are mostly of English provenance; a silly push for translating university level scientific literature from English rather than focusing on the subject matter … the list is quite full. 

Language learning being an immersive process by nature, the sum total of these policies is the continuing reduction of the aggregate English proficiency in Bangladesh among the educated folks who cannot afford to send their children abroad at an early age. Not very egalitarian, if you ask me.

Esam Sohail is a college administrator. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]