Tuesday, November 30, 2010


In many of the countries frequently mentioned in this blog, English is a practical tool of communication for people with different language backgrounds. India, for example, has hundreds of languages, thirty of them spoken by communities of more than a million people. Although Hindi is widely understood in the north, it is less well-known – and less loved – in the south. English is often the choice for inter-regional communication, and is also favoured by the educated elite. In neighbouring Bangladesh, however, the picture is quite different. Except in a few remote areas, virtually all of its 160 million people speak Bangla/Bengali.

Indeed Bangla, which is also spoken in India and ranks sixth among the world’s languages, was a major reason for the creation of the country. Formed originally into East Pakistan when India was divided into Muslim and Hindu territories at independence in 1947, the Bengali people came to feel isolated and disadvantaged by policies made in more powerful – but less populous – West Pakistan that favoured the Urdu language. Reinforced by economic problems, linguistic nationalism led to a war with the West resulting in the foundation of Bangladesh in 1971. Bengalis remain proud of their language and less than 3% of them speak English. Rabindranath Tagore, who was from over the border in Calcutta but owned land in what is now Bangladesh, was the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although educated in London, he wrote mostly in Bangla.

Despite all this, English has a prominent position in Bangladesh. It is used widely in higher education and law – indeed it is the only language of the higher courts, and lawyers who are poor in English cannot expect to get well-paid work. It is also considered the key to business success. The streets of Dhaka are full of advertisements for English courses.

Why should English be so important even in a country where most people speak the same language and are proud of doing so? Perhaps it is partly because of economics. While conditions have improved greatly in recent years, Bangladesh remains one of the world’s poorest countries. Trading, working and studying overseas are seen as crucial to economic improvement.