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27 February, 2018 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 26 February, 2018 11:10:23 PM

Should English be taught from primary level in Bangladesh?

There was a kind of indecision about the position of Mother Tongue and English in the curriculum since the independence of Bangladesh
Md Khaled Bin Chowdhury
Should English be taught from primary level in Bangladesh?

In Bangladesh majority of people use Bangla in almost all the domains of their life. Before 1971, in the united Pakistan, the people of the East Pakistan notably the Bengalis had to use Urdu alongside English such as for administrative work and inter-state communication. Urdu was taught as a compulsory subject from class three. Those who were not fluent in Urdu relied on English for communication with their counterparts in West Pakistan. The undivided Pakistan was a multilingual country with Urdu, Bangla, Hindi, Sindhi being used in respective states. The situation could well be compared with India, another multilingual country. In such a multilingual setting, English was the lingua franca for communication. English enjoyed the status of a second language. After the liberation, Bangladesh made Bangla the state language. Bangla replaced English in all official communications except for communication by foreign missions and among countries. Bangla also became the only medium  of education at secondary and higher secondary levels. Attempts were made to translate English books into Bangla to meet the needs of books in different subjects. Now Bangla is being widely used in all major domains of our national life. But, there were many people who created uproar and still are doing the same about the necessity of English. They are crying hoarse that our standard of education is going down because our graduates are not becoming competent in English. They equate standard of education with English proficiency of the students. So the policy- makers opted for teaching English from the primary level as a compulsory subject. Learning English was made universal in our whole education system without thinking about its usefulness and identifying the domains of use of English and Bangla. So, the ultimate result was that we could not create proficient manpower either in our Mother Tongue or in English. There is no doubt that our teaching methodology of both MotherTongue and English is faulty and hence we cannot produce competent bilinguals.

A ‘competent bilingual’ in Bangladesh may be any one of the following persons: 1) One who can speak and write English fluently as much as s/he can speak and write fluent Bangla. 2) One who can speak English fluently but has limited writing skills; however, on the other hand, s/he can write Bangla very well. 3) One who cannot speak fluent English but can write it appropriately—and can also write Bangla well. 4) One who cannot express oneself properly in verbal or written English, but has very well developed receptive skills in English; she/he can understand everything in English when she/he reads or hears, and she/he can write and speak good Bangla. 5) One who cannot write either good proper Bangla or English, but has the spoken communicative skills in both languages which she/he uses in her/his daily life (e.g. in his job) perfectly. 6) One who has a very solid command of English—be it writing or speaking—but can only speak, and not write, Bangla well.

So, from the above categories it is evident that, competence in one or two of the skills in both English and MT is considered competence in bilingualism. But, it is very difficult to ascertain the number of competent bilinguals in Bangladesh from the above mentioned categories because there are over-lapping among them. There are many people who are very competent in spoken English, but cannot write correct English. On the other hand, there are many people who are good neither in English nor in Bangla. It also cannot be determined who is using which language for what purpose. Bilingualism is also relative and it is difficult to achieve native-like control of two languages as defined by Bloomfield. Similarly, at what point do we decide that a person is now ‘native like’?

It is important to know about the history of English education in Bangladesh. The history of English education in Bangladesh dates back to the British period.  The European missionaries and the East India Company established some educational institutions. At the beginning of 19th century, the English language schools based on British model were established in this region, which is now Bangladesh. Then only those Indians who were proficient in English were recruited for the government job. At the end of the first half of 19th century, the British rulers made this continent a field of trade and business. So, they started to give attention to the education of the natives with English as a medium so that the natives could explore the Western language, literature, science and technology. Thomas Macauly passed an important resolution in 1835 with the goal to teach some Indians who retain their Indian-ness in blood and colour but British in taste and ideology. The hidden agenda of the British were to create some so called British elites who would be Britain’s future customers, particularly in terms of their language and culture. After Macaulay’s 104 No. Resolution, the promotion of English was accelerated by political, economic and social power; thus, the seed of linguistic and cultural imperialism was sown.

There was a kind of indecision about the position of Mother Tongue and English in the curriculum since the independence of Bangladesh. The first Bangladesh Education Commission headed by Dr. Qudrat-E-Khuda  recommended that  there should be  no other language  up to class 5 except  Mother Tongue  and from class 6 to 12, English would be taught  as a compulsory subject.  The National Curriculum Committee (NCC) that was formed after the acceptance of the report could not reach at any consensus regarding from which class to teach English. So, the higher level, that is, the Cabinet gave the decision about English in the curriculum. That is, the cabinet opted for teaching English from class 1. There was a negative impact of this decision of teaching English from so early a stage. As a result, the average child could acquire neither English nor Mother Tongue properly. A second language at so pre-mature an age took away their time, attention and ability from Mother Tongue acquisition. So, the literacy rate in even Bangla is not satisfactory and up to the international standard. A survey in October 2014by Room to Read, an international organization reveals the fact in its monthly publication. Though the target reading fluency for children is 45-60 words per minute by the end of Grade 2, the study found that in Bangladesh students at the end of grade 2 could only read an average of 33 words per minute and 16% of those students could not read even a single word. In a recent roundtable organised by The Daily Star, it was reported that only one-third of class 3 students and one-fourth of class 5 students  have  reached  the level of learning achievement of the National Student Assessment(NSA) being  conducted every two year by the Directorate of  Primary Education of Bangladesh. What we see is that our Mother Tongue education is itself an unsystematic, unscientific and a neglected domain. The Education Commission after the country’s independence recognised that “language teaching in our country is defective and unsystematic and it should be improved soon. In addition to improving the quality of Mother Tongue education, there is no need for learning other languages except the MT up to class 5”.

But it is unfortunate that we have been maintaining unplanned bilingualism in our education from the primary level for ages. We are crying hoarse that we cannot do without English. As a compulsory subject, English is being taught   from class 1 through class 12. To justify the policy we refer to the necessity of English as a global language and the language education policy of other countries. But the countries we refer to are multilingual. On the other hand, ours is a monolingual country and, more importantly, we have not yet identified our domains of English use. We are more worried about the poor English knowledge of our students but pay no attention to Mother Tongue education which has a similarly inferior quality. We are investing more efforts on English learning and teaching at the cost of MT education but the achievement  is still very poor. This diverts a huge portion of the focus and attention of our policy- makers from MT to English. At the peril of MT we are concentrating on English language. But, we should not create this uproar about English because Bangla occupies an unquestionable position in all domains of our national life whereas  that of  English is  negligible.

Humayun  Azad  said  that  it is a misconceived idea among many of us  that our development is impossible without English. But the fact is that we are callous in giving due attention to neither Bangla nor English. The situation is dichotomous as mentioned by Azad in the following sentences.  He says that in the development process of Bangladesh both English and Bangla are being used, but neither of them is getting prominence. Though many decision-makers want to prioritise English, but for political reasons, such as, popular mandate, the rulers are compelled to show preference for Bangla to English. Ultimately the development of Bangladesh is hampered due to this situation of conflicting interests between two languages and consequently this situation disrupts the progress of both the languages and the country. If only Bangla were used as the language for development, it would very soon reach a standard, its new vocabulary would be created, spelling would be systematic, its terminology would be developed and its syntax would be disciplined. The situation is getting worse owing to the absence of any fixed and precise language policy.

It is time we planned our language policy wisely. It is time to re-define the role of MT and English in education.  I think in primary education only Bangla should be taught and English can be taught as an optional or compulsory second language from secondary level.  

The writer is faculty of BGC Trust University Bangladesh, Chittagong.

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
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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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