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Photo: Arif Hafiz
Photo: Arif Hafiz

As a Bangladeshi of Bengali descent, it is often fun to see how much Bengali has disintegrated into nothingness over the years.

A recent article by Ahmed Zayeef titled “80% Fail to Get Passing Mark” looked at the rate of students who fail to gain admission to Dhaka University found that 80% of the student force upon applying, could not get admission. Another article by Ahmed Zayeef (yes, he is brilliant on this subject) titled “Bangla Skills on The Wane” looked at the number of students who failed to acquire a pass in Bangla to be 55%, and a percentage of 38% gaining a fail in both English and Bangla.

It may even be OK not to know a foreign language but your own mother tongue!

Kind of preposterous, but you know….colonisation was for a reason.

But first, let me tell you a story.

My first visit to my first book fair in Dhaka was with my father which ended up in a book purchase of Humayun Ahmed’s “Botol Bhut”, a most interesting tale. This book recounted the tales of a boy who acquires a genie in a bottle who solves all of his problems, on the condition that he has to believe ghosts exist. When the protagonist fails to live up to the promise he made to the Rabindranath Tagore look-alike from whom he acquired the little ghost, he is abandoned by the little jinx. The gist of the story: don’t make promises and fail to live up to your standards or you will pay.

On the occasion of the International Mother Language Day on February 21st, my Bangladeshi and Bengali friends all over the world have to come to terms with the fact that ours is a dying language, in the sense that not only is it not globally known, but with the advent of other languages such as Hindi and the already existing English in our curriculum, Bengalis will have to work harder to ensure next generations know it just as well.

With political situations as dire as it is around the world, it is worth noting the fact — and the tragedy — my fellowmen do not know who the national poet Nazrul Islam is, but heaven be damned if they do not know who One Direction is (this, especially true for Westernised younger generations who seem to be in so many positions of emerging power and also, gaining identity first and foremost, through Westernisation).

In Bangladesh, where lawlessness and crime is an aspect of daily life –people tend to be careful in order to survive and retain whatever they have gathered. Except for the “mentally retarded” who like to give away what is theirs to others, the significance and the urgency of relating to cultural practices and norms is what keeps people alive on a regular basis.

In terms of language, where is the caution? The urgency to retain it for future generations?

And not just through downloadable Bengali PDF books — although that would be handy in the soon-to-be extinct printing industry.

But where is the practice? Where is the cultivation?

Dying languages is a very real phenomenon. And for us Bangladeshis, a lack of global relevance in respect to the preservation of our national language could well be the real threat.

In terms of global relevance, take a look at Hindi and Mandarin, the national languages of those two big giants, India and China. As both countries are major economic centres in today’s world, there will be an effort from both local and international locations to preserve both languages, including other derivates if existing and arising from both these two languages.

On the other hand, Bangladesh has not been able to become  a major economic centre and as such, at times there are awkward moments of people asking me “but is Bangladesh part of Pakistan/India”, so you all speak Hindi, right”?

Ah well. Looks like nobody ever consulted an atlas ever in their lives.


Privilege and power always existed for a reason, it seems.

In order for Bangla to become a highly marketable and therefore, salvageable product worthy for preservation for future preservation, Bangladesh must take actions to make it valuable as a world language backed by aspirations of world power. To do that, Bangladesh must first strengthen its economy, become a world power and treat its minorities with respect.

Greed and malice is part of the global collective history and is also, part of our history.

Even if we want to make things better, rarely do they ever become better just because there is good intention.

Despite opportunities in funding, “aid” and a plethora of resources targeted toward salvaging culture, a certain lack of interest amongst Bangladeshis to cultivate one’s own culture and language beyond the superficial is one of the greatest barriers we must overcome to ensure our language is retained for future generations — a thought perhaps, which continues to grow and earn some respect.

We are killing our economy with our politics and our culture with a frivolity and it’s this combination that Bengali may disappear as a language worth respecting even if millions speak the same.

Let us not go there.

Nadia Chowdhury, an aspiring writer, is a graduate from York University, Canada.

16 Responses to “The disappearing language and the Bengali imagination”

  1. Shabbir A. Bashar

    I am not sure how one can say Bangla is a dying language when there are 250 million speakers and it is ranked as the seventh most widely used language in the world. Language is subject to change and evolution and it reflects the communication and cultural needs of those who use it. Concepts that do not exist or are not valued in a certain culture are less likely have an indigenous word for it. That implies if all new concepts and innovations are coming from a community other than Bangla, then it is only natural that there will be no Bangla word for it. Bangla is rich in words to describe corruption, nepotism, strike, violence, bribe … so why do you say Bangla is a dying language?

  2. Akteruzzaman Chowdhury

    Translation of a French poem written by R. Gelis.

    Les Enfants De Demain,

    Les enfants de demain,
    Auront-ils pour flaner,
    Des parcs et des chemins
    A l’abri des fumees?

    Les enfants de demain,
    Auront-ils pour rever,
    Des fleurs et de jardins,
    Au coeur de leurs cites?

    Les enfants de demain,
    Auront-ils pour chanter,
    Les oiseaux, les matins,
    Le couleurs de l’ete?

    La reponse apres tout.
    Ne depend que de Vous.

    Children Of Tomorrow.

    Children of tomorrow
    Will they stroll,
    In parks and paths
    Sheltered from fumes?

    Children of tomorrow
    Will they only dream,
    Of flowers and gardens,
    In the heart of their cities?

    Children of tomorrow
    Will they only sing,
    Of birds, the morning,
    The colors of summer?

    The answer after all.
    Depends on You.

  3. Akteruzzaman Chowdhury

    Descarte in six languages.

    Cogito ergo sum.
    Je pense, donc je suis.
    I think, therefore I am.
    আমি চিন্তাশিল, তাই অস্তিত্য
    मैं सोचता हूँ, इसलिए मैं हूँ
    أنا أفكر، إذا أنا

  4. Riaz Osmani

    One way to stop the decaying of Bangla in Bangladesh at least is to ban English Medium schools (not sure if that is possible though). Another way is to be conscious of and not peppering Bangla sentences with needless English words where perfectly good Bangla words exist.

    • Progressive Bengali

      I think the best guarantee for Bangla to shine is for the nation to shine; financially, militarily, scientifically, academically and in all respect (like any modern western nation). The current generation of political leaders are incapable of making Bangladesh a powerful nation. Creation of a western model secular democracy is the only road to success. Another way to make Bangla an important language is to let non-Bangladeshi people learn Bangla (invite foreign students in drones with scholarship and offer freed Bangla language education). This needs money and resources. Hence back to square one: a powerful nation caries, protects and flourishes a power language!

  5. Hasan Mahmud Dolon

    Very interesting topic and very interestingly written. I thought i would read a technical, complicated one. But it was written in layman’s language, reaching the lay readers. Thank you.

  6. gazi bulbul

    Ever since we have started writing/texting in Bangla using English alphabets, the condition has gotten worse!

  7. Nurunnabi

    Chowdhury is absolutely right that Bangla is losing its glory by day. But i don’t think she is right when she says that the main contender of our mother togue is English and Hindi. English, absolutely yes. But Hindi? I don’t think so. As far as i know, the Indians too are facing the same problem as we are. In their country too English is taking over and Hindi is becoming an optional subject in schools and colleges, very much like Sanskrit. It’s getting rare by the day to find young people who can read and write in Hindi.

  8. Jillur Alam

    I completely agree with the writer. Bangla is indeed fading away and if we don’t do something and use it in our everyday purpose, it will soon become extinct.

  9. Zulekha Parveen

    Funny, a write-up on “disappearing” Bangla is written by a “a Bangladeshi of Bengali descent” !! At least you could have tried to write it in Bangla to reach out to majority of you concerns, and while at it, our language is “Bangla” not Bengali. You write Hindi as Hindi, English as English and Bangla not as Bangla, but Bengali. Think about it.

  10. Golam Arshad

    You are absolutely Right! Bangla Culture in Bangladesh is DIFFERENT than Bangla culture in India ( West Bengal / Bangla Prodesh ). Why purely RELIGIOUS in manifestation of Identity! Hindi in India and Urdu in Pakistan are being harnessed as ONE LANGUAGE defining language homogeneity! There are several Regional Languages in India and Pakistan: to name a few Punjabi, Tamil, Oriah, Bangla eyc. etc.,The advantage in Bangladesh is we have a Language homogeneity but distinctive Islamic identity. There is a clear DIVISION in political polemics: SECULAR ( Being a Muslim you or I cannot be secular ) Yes we can as MUSLIM be FAIR and JUST to ALL Religious Denomination. See in recent time, I hope there should be a SURVEY how many new intake in AL and COMMUNIST Party, other than having a Political agenda we are SECULAR and they are ISLAMIST they don’t utter CONSERVATIVE or don’t define them selves as LIBERAL. Because that is a Politics that hinges on SECULAR VS ISLAM It is okay and acceptable even by us let alone Indians to have a Hinduva Party like BJP or RSS and other Hindu religion based Party. But it is a NO! NO! in Bangladesh spearheaded by a well known Party that we are SECULAR as MUSLIM. And a MUSLIM cannot be SECULAR. ISLAM RECOGNIZES the WILL TO BE DIFFERENT clear and STRAIGHT! Then where does the other Religion stand, if like to FLOAT a BJP like Party in Bangladesh meaning a Religious based Party other than Islamic Party, will that be OKAY ? Hasina knows best what she conjures UP for US, and make us to believe what is a FARCE ELECTION and A FAIR ELECTION. She is going in FULL STEAM AND STRENGTH IN MAKE BELIEVE FAIR ELECTION!God forbid Our NEXT DIVIDE should NOT be on CULTURAL MANIFESTATION and IDENTIFICATION! SHUNNING THE NOW OBSOLETE TANTRUM OF PRO PAKISTANI AND PRO INDIAN jingoism of Political gaze for CHEAP Political mileage! Time is RIGHT to DEFINE ourselves and invoke a NEW CONSTITUTION!! Good job!!

    • Progressive Bengali

      New Constitution based on? I see no problem if a new political party emerges or even is voted to power. What would be the political ideology of that party? Which language will that party leaders and followers will start to speak, and let the nation speak? Please come up with new ideas.To me your reply seems irrelevant to the writing of Nadia Chowdhury.Howver, new debates are always welcome as long as they are within the scope of building/rebuilding Bangladesh in new light.

      • Golam Arshad

        Good Question! A Constitution based on National Consensus and Unity! Good Governance and Oversight! A Bicameral Parliament ( Senate/Upper House ) and a (Lower House of Representative). Upper House term will be for Four Years. Lower House will be for Two Years. A Clause/Article to be inserted that a Parliament seat could be recalled if the majority by referendum in the constituency wants that Member to be removed. Current Article 70 must be repealed with provision for Floor Crossing based on specifics vetted by Parliament Ombudsman. A Prime Minister or the Leader of the Opposition He or she can only be removed from office by a three Fourth Majority in the Parliament. President will be empowered to dissolve the Parliament in consultation to the Leader of the House and the Leader of the Opposition. He or she as President will not require any written consent from either the Leader of the House or the Leader of the Opposition. The Presidential office must be NEUTRAL and he or she will be the guardian of the Constitution. He or she may appoint a National Commission to over see any wrong committed or of any misuse of power by Members of Parliament including Prime Minister, Ministers and the Leader of the Opposition. The Prime Minister will be solely responsible to the Parliament and so does all ministers. if he or she losses majority the President will invite the leader of the majority party in seeking a vote of confidence to Head the Next Government. A Member of Parliament can only be in office for Two Term in his or her life time. And a Upper House Member for One Term in his or her life time. Election Expenses will be strictly imposed and solely disbursed by a Election Commission Body with designated representative of the Parties contesting the election. Nomination of any Member of a Party must be vetted by a Primary Election under oversight of Election Commission. Party can only propose potential names for a Constituency… the Constituents will decide who will be the ultimate nominee for the seat of MP in that particular area. The MP’s should remain in the constituence as long he served the belonging constituency. He or she will only be in Dhaka during session. Every week the MP must be available in his or her constituency to oversee progress of development in his or her area. Local Administration will render logistic support and policy implementation of the area / constituents a Member of Parliament charged for that area. An oversight committee from the Parliament, which will oversee the development activities implemented and may question for recalling an election, deem fit of any laxity/ allegation of corruption on the part of the Member of Parliament and voice of majority in referendum to that constituency. Age Limit must be imposed for both Lower and upper House of Parliament.

  11. Lunik

    The gulf between traditional literary Bengali (Tagore, Nazrul, Buddha Deb, Sunil etc) and the Dhaka centered spoken Bengali is huge. This historical gap will never be bridged. The conversational Bengali as used in Dhaka is not sophisticated enough to be used in literature, a reverse situation of what exists in Calcutta and the main reason for the literary supremacy of West Bengal where ironically Bengali is also under threat from Hindi for quite a different reason. Cultural traditions of both Bengali and Hindi speakers in India are the same both deriving their resources from the centuries old Indian cultural heritage. The similarity of literary forms of Hindi and the Indian version Bengali provides enough incentives for a Bengali speaker to switch to Hindi for it’s practical utility, Hindi being the Lingua Franca in India. Thus while Bengali although diminishing in India in usage terms will still continue to flourish as a literary language in India, the Dhaka centered Bangla will remain sterile and staid.

    • Taif

      You cannot be serious can you? The language used in conversation and in literature is contrasting. The Bengali used in West Bengal is a highly sanskritized version of Bengali. Something you cannot force feed to the Muslim Bengali. That is also the Urdu Hindi divide. For you to say that the the literary Bengali of the Calcutta is superior is utter nonsense.

      If Hindi is the lingua franca of India, why is it not embraced in the South? In Bollywood the Punjabi always speaks in Punjabi and the Hindi speaking guy tries to speak back in Punjabi. It never does the same for any other language.

  12. dying

    i died reading this. this article could have gained from providing an indepth analysis rather than making grand generalizations without evidence.

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