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11 October, 2018 00:00 00 AM

English and our sub-continental identity

English with its vast history has gradually risen to such a status where it is more a ‘culture’ than just a language
Hisham M Nazer
English and our sub-continental identity

The expression of social phenomena is bound by the language of that society and when the ‘social consciousness’ is as huge—and although multifarious but almost similar in origin—as all the Western societies, English as a language and as a mode of identity is bound to be charged with facts beyond the linguistic ones.

These facts have mostly to do with ‘presentation’ – with how a language before becoming only a means of communication, becomes a cultural practice that aims at refining and often defining the identity itself from which it was originally supposed to come forth.

Therefore, when English is discussed as a form of cultural practice, it takes into account the politics of the language and the common linguistic psychology that builds itself around it. For the non-English-speaking communities today, often English is considered as what we understand by the phrase ‘high culture’. With its already high status as a language, English adds status to the people who strive for the high places in a society.

Although such is not the only case with the cultural practice of English, but it is nevertheless the prominent one in any community that takes English as a ‘practice’ more than as a means of communication. Natives do not practice a language, they simply use it and thus it is a part of their ‘necessity’, but any country which already has an official language, using another one must prove to be something other than a simple necessity.

This ascertains the fact that whenever ‘cultural consciousness’ is added to the use of a ‘language’, it ceases to be merely a language and becomes a part of the struggle a community undergoes to attain the status it deems better than itself.

Now let us concentrate how Bangladesh, a non-English community, has developed and manufactured the English identity. For this “third world” Asian country, English is both a necessity and a cultural ‘fashion’, and it is the history of the former that has given rise to the latter. Long ago, when Bangladesh was emerging as a sovereign country, to be ruled by the people who fought and died for their language ‘Bangla’, during the time of British rule in India, the people in this part of the world felt the necessity to compete with the British rulers and citizens.

It is for this dire need to express themselves, their concerns, their complaints that the people of the greater India adopted the very language of their oppressors. English here became the language of verbal retaliation and resistance. This was the first phase of English as a cultural tool in the greater India.

After that when India got its independence from the British Empire, the practice of English entered into its second phase where it was considered to be a means of intellectual development. This was partly triggered by the British themselves, when they left the taste of English culture behind them and with it the Western version of high intellectualism. In order to master that hitherto less explored realm of knowledge, it was necessary to conquer the language of the conquerors.

It was the key to the Western treasures, and maybe it was also the means of mastering the language of the rulers, to be rulers ourselves. But too much must have happened politically. Apparently, it was only an intellectual challenge that aimed not at the conquest of the lands but at the conquest of the minds to empower the ethnic identify so that it can defend itself from any further subjugation. But Bangladesh felt this need and accepted the challenge much later when it got its independence from Pakistan in 1971.

The cultural practice of English in Bangladesh has twofold history- one that of the English itself as a historical political phenomenon that once forced people into adopting it, and then the impact it imparted to this region of the world, which in consequence led Indians and Bangladeshis alike to mould English as a culture so that they can stand with the English speaking world and not remain confused about what they are telling us.

It is the third phase of English as a cultural practice that appertains to its ‘high’ status. This phase is so much like the English phase itself when knowing a little Latin was considered ‘cultural sophistication’ (e.g. the ‘Latinisation’ in Bacon’s essays). When English became compulsory in the education sector in Bangladesh, when people started talking more and more in English, and when the language was to some extent mastered, people started practicing it not as a challenge anymore, not as a means of exploring the English intellectual treasures, but as an exhibition of a special identity.

Before English was the language of the pundits only. But now it has become a language frequently used outside the academic sphere. Today a large portion of the population finds it fashionable to be fluent in English and anyone having a fair fluency in it is considered more capable for any job. Therefore the use of English has become a practical concern which previously was much more of an ideal one.

The emphasis on this practicality of English as a language has brought in many changes in the academic side of it too and hence the introduction of ‘Communicative Language’ in the current curriculum of Bangladeshi education. The third phase ends here with the emergence of the fourth that finds English incorporated into the whole social consciousness; where it remains a practice but at the same time becomes a norm, giving rise to a new culture that not only adopts English but also with it the whole English culture. But it is always the language that showed the path to this new way of life and it will always remain so as the window to the Western.  

The writer is Lecturer

Department of English

Varendra University



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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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