Once a Bangladeshi child is enrolled at school, s/he is commonly given the impression that his or her future, to some extent, depends on a good command of English. Furthermore, the student with the best English accent is considered the smartest of the bunch.
And this mentality persists as the children grow and enter higher education and career. In our context, a careerist person can hardly survive and thrive without a working knowledge of English.
Still, the question remains: Are we overstressing the importance of learning English and is it leading to sidelining other important skills that may define the competency of a person?
How much fluency matters?
There are differences of opinion about this, especially in a country which paid price for upholding Bangla. “I think someone's ability to speak a foreign language shouldn't be a major factor to judge. With Bangla being such an important part of our culture and heritage, we had better transition from the colonial way of thinking” says SM Nahian Islam, a second-year student of Dhaka University. “One may ask if we are giving enough respect to our mother tongue,” he adds.
Tahsin Shahriar, a budding statistician, sees this from the perspective of skills development. “It depends how much fluency matters. That (fluency) doesn't necessarily mean one has to speak English like a native American or an Englishman. Conveying the message, in the first place, is good enough,” he observes.
He, however, adds that for a professional like computer engineer, what matters is technical skills and knowledge, not how fluent s/he is in English. “Yes, maybe, for a PR manager working with foreigners, it’s better if he/she is fluent in English.”
Conspicuously, there’s a tendency among some people to give more emphasis on accent than the essence. Mushfika Hasan Stuti, a geography and environment student of Dhaka University, feels that when someone speaks with a foreign businessman, a good accent in English alongside a grammatical hold of the language is important. “Nevertheless, it’s not bad either to continue with a moderate hold.”
It’s entirely a different scenario when someone faces international audience of different kinds. Mr Habibur Rahman, managing director of RSF Group, acknowledges the importance of English in the corporate world, “English is the language of international business. With it, we can appeal to a wide range of people. It's also the language of the internet. Hence we put so much importance to it.”
The medium of more than 50 per cent content on the internet is English.
Do Chinese, Japanese learn English?
There is a common perception that the Chinese and the Japanese hardly know English. Such a debate is still there on the social media.
“That’s not true anymore. There are more Chinese students now learning English today than the total number of people speaking in English in Europe!” says Dhaka University professor of English Syed Manzoorul Islam. He explains that like the East Asians, ‘we also learn English for the simple reason that it’s the leading global language of communication, education, business, international relations and other activities involving more than one country.’ However, Bangladeshis have inherited the tradition of learning English from the British colonial era.
Asked if learning English language is a luxury, he says, “Not at all is it so. The reality is: Without the ability to communicate in English, we cannot be globally competitive. The reason we cannot learn it sufficiently well is our faulty education system which stresses rote learning and discourages students’ active participation in class proceedings.”
Where’s the problem?
Despite having 12 years of education with certain emphasis on basic English, a major portion of the students of the country struggle with English when they move on to university or working life. In an enrolment test at Dhaka University back in 2014, out of 40,565 examinees, some 22,000 failed in English and only two students qualified to be enrolled with the English department for the 2014-15 session.
Bangladesh has been placed at 71st position in 9th English Proficiency Index (EPI) covering 100 non-English-speaking countries and the country's English proficiency level is considered "very low".
Mazoorul Islam, first, blames it on an inefficient teaching system that fails to provide the students with skills required to use a language effectively. Secondly, he believes, the absence of any imperative to use the language outside classroom is a big constraint. Even in classrooms, the opportunity to speak English as a foreign language is limited, unlike the practice in neighbouring India, where English is the only medium of communications between different language users. Thirdly, he thinks, the high expenses associated with learning English in institutions outside schools and colleges are also a barrier.
History says the domination of the British empire has resulted in the domination of the English language around the world. Independent nations put emphasis on their own languages. Though, learning English is important for a few reasons, learning other languages is also equally important. And, as for the importance of learning the mother tongue, it goes without saying.
Ismot Hasnaine is a second year student at the University of Dhaka.