Where is English? | 2019-01-24

Where is English?

Nasih Ul Wadud Alam (Paolo)

24 January, 2019 12:00 AM printer

Where is English?

English is not, by any stretch of the imagination, is our first language. We can live without speaking in English, but uttering it in sub-continental countries has more perks. General people show more admiration when someone acquires and delivers second language fluently and boisterously. English is a language of power. Therefore, Englishhas become an existential life-blood of our lives. It is an affair that will never end!

English will die once we stop communicating with it anymore. We may dream of seeing the extinction of English language and literature, but it is not possible in any synchronic terms. The diachronically linguistical imperialism of English weighs more values not because it is more beautifully encrypted than Bengali. English has become an international language because of colonial expansions in the previous centuries. Since the British colonies started cementing their places in our parts of the world, English has carved its niche as a Lingua Franca. The rise of colonial boundaries has led to the Rise of English.They gave us William Shakespeare but we could give them nothing of that magnitude in return! They indoctrinated us into reading Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, Austen and Eliot. In the colonial period,we took pleasure in reading them. Could we give them the same entertainment in return? We did not have enough materials and the epistemology of production to enable them to read and translate enough of our literary works into their language. We allowed them to obliterate our culture and subjugate us. To literature to make its name, one needs enough critical works to go with it. The importance of literature, as George Watson has put it, depends a lot on the nature and frequency of criticism. Bengali literature has not made any impact on global readership. One of the salient features is its lack of critical books translated into English for global readers to read. The number of foreigners doing research works on our literature is a bare minimum; compared to the one doing PhD in Indian writers working in English.

In the movie, The Sleeping Dictionary, we find a young colonial British man coming to Boreno, Malaysia for running the empire’s administrative works. However, he faces a language barrier. His senior official urges him to learn the native Iban language for communicating better with his subjects. At first, he shows his aversion to learning a different language. His colonial mentality of signifying English to be the only language of communication inhibits him from accepting a heterogeneous culture. Slowly but steadily, he learns to acquire the Iban language with the help of his girlfriend from Boreno. Many British did the same. They came to our part of the world and learned our language for their welfare. Many of them made relationships with women and left when their tenure had been ended. Some of them were human enough to marry and take them to their own land for settling down!  On the other hand, many distinguished academicians from India, in the colonial period, switched their boards and tried to lead better lives in England. However, the British academicians did not give them enough opportunities to flourish through their ranks. It is still going on. I know many scholars who have foreign degrees from reputed foreign universities but they are not allowed to reach the academic zenith despise having more than enough credentials. There is institutional racism. These Bangladeshi globe-trotters should come to their motherland and serve the nation. We should give more facilities to these prestigious scholars to have more opportunities to enhance their intellect and share their knowledge with us. The nation overall will reap benefits if they continue to impart genuine ideas.

Chinua Achebe, the Nigerian author, is ambivalent towards the expansion of colonialism. Instead of criticizing the foreign culture, heemphasizes putting “our own house in order and not count on other people to do it for us” (The Guardian, December 13, 2010). He has been stuck in his belief of writing in English to reach the global audience. Achebe wants to decolonise the colonial mind by decolonising the language of the African writers working in English. He encourages the use of new English that will have postcolonial settings. The Kenyan widely cited author Ngũgĩ wa Thiong who gave up writing in English. He found English to be an elitist language which inhibited him from getting his message across. As a result, he chose to write in Gikuyu language to reach wider audiences. He resists colonial oppression and attempts to raise consciousness among his people with his own native language. English would not have given him the same platform to resist colonial ideals the same way!

We are living in a moment where we need to learn English at any cost. We have to come out of our duality of writing English the way Anglo Saxon writers do. We can never write like they do. There is no need to. We should create our own English language based on our own surroundings. To do that, we need to read more English books and newspapers. We need to translate our thoughts into words.  Speaking in English is also a requirement. In order to speak better, we need to listen more in English.

Let us for now continue to learn their language. One day, we will be world beaters. Bengali will find its place as a global language and dominate its proceedings over the English speaking worlds. We should translate our own works into foreign languages. We must compel the global world to take cognizance of the presence of Bengali language!


The writer is a Lecturer, Department of English, Chittagong Independent University (CIU)