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State of multilingual education in Bangladesh

M S Siddiqui
01 Mar 2023 00:01:54 | Update: 01 Mar 2023 00:01:54
State of multilingual education in Bangladesh

Language is more than just listening, speaking, reading and writing. Language serves the purpose of communication and making sense of the world through the processes of thinking, inferring and reasoning. Language is the primary medium for communication, thinking and understanding.

February 21 of each year is being observed all over the world as International Mother Language Day since 1999. The declaration was made by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation to maintain linguistic diversity for the sake of a sustainable world. It is a tradition that UNESCO observes International Mother Language Day on February 21 every year based on a particular theme since 1999. The theme of the year 2023 is “Multilingual education - a necessity to transform education”.

Bangladesh is a monolingual country where Bangla is the official language for education, administration, media, literature, and cultural activities. It has 98% of the people speak the national language Bangla. Hence Bangladesh is often referred to as a homogeneous nation. There are minority languages in Bangladesh and several dialects of Bangla, which are different from the school language. There are also 45 or more indigenous groups which form linguistic minorities in the country, speaking more than 30 different languages, and ethnolinguistically different from the majority of the Bangla-speaking population. Even in the Bangladeshi ‘monolingual’ setting, there are multilingual speech communities such as the ‘Tripuras’ (speaking Kokborok, Chakma, and Bangla), the ‘Sylhetis’ (speaking Sylheti, Bangla, and English), the ‘Chittagonians’ (speaking Chatgaiyan and Bangla), and so on.

The constitution of Bangladesh in 1972 recognized the undisputed status of Bangla as the state language of Bangladesh. Bangladesh government formed seven commission since independence namely Bangladesh Education Commission Report - 1974, the English Teaching Taskforce Commission - 1976, the Bangladesh National Education Commission Report - 1988, the National Curriculum Committee - 1991, the National Education Policy - 2000, the Bari Commission Report - 2002, the Miah Commission Report - 2004, and the National Education Policy - 2010. All of which placed various degrees of emphasis on the planning, pedagogy and learning of English in Bangladesh. The first Bangladesh Education Commission headed by Dr. Qudrat-E-Khuda recommended (1974) that there should be no other language up to class V except mother tongue and from class vi to xii, English would be taught as a compulsory subject. Although English has been taught compulsorily in schools from primary to secondary level, students’ performance in English is generally still found to be very poor

One Education Commission pointed out that the indecision about a clear-cut language policy has brought the higher education sector to ‘the verge of a disaster. Although English has been taught compulsorily in schools from primary to secondary level, students’ performance in English is generally still found to be very poor. But the education authority could not implement the recommendations. Bilingualism was made universal in our whole education system. In Parallel to Bangla, English is being taught as a compulsory subject from class 1 throughout class 12.

With the emergence of English as global language has brought about significant changes to the education policy and practice in education systems around the world. Many countries in Asia have adopted English as an official language or have recognized it as the priority foreign language to compete in the global market.

Consequently, many countries in Asia, for example, the Southeast Asian countries, where English has been used as foreign language over decades, have adopted the teaching and learning of English in their education policies in response to the realities of a more globally connected world. In 2001, the Chinese government introduced English as a compulsory subject in Class 3 in all elementary schools and instructed all public colleges and universities to use English as the main teaching language for technology and business related subjects. This resulted in massive changes through which China opened up to the English speaking world, in terms of trade and commerce, education and training, as well as through politics and development.

In the country’s latest education policy, the National Education Policy 2010 (NEP 2010), English education has been given greater importance with a view to building a strong and progressive knowledge-based and information technology-oriented society. The NEP 2010 first has given emphasis on bi-linguistic education. English has been recognised as essential tool to building knowledge-based society and Emphasis on English writing and speaking from the very beginning of primary education. It has been suggested that English to be set as compulsory subject adopted in all streams from the secondary level. The English as medium of instruction could be introduced from the secondary level. Emphasis has given on appointing adequate number of English teachers at secondary level. English to be a compulsory subject in all colleges and universities English (along with Bengali) to be the mediums of instruction at the tertiary level. Another emphasis has been given on the need to translate books written in English to Bengali.

Although the first Education Commission affirmed Bangla to be the only medium of instruction from primary to higher education level, it also acknowledged the importance of learning at least one foreign language as second language from Class 6. The recommendation of the commission was inherently in favour of English as second language, because of the country’s inherited legacy from its British colonial history.

English is essential for the global connectivity, enrichment of knowledge, and creation of skilled manpower for global market. In the South Asian subcontinent, the colonial British rulers adopted the British education system in order to use education as a political tool aimed to prolong their domination. It was blessings in disguise.

Most of the people around the world speak more than one language and so are multilingual instead of homogeneous. Being bilingual can lead to improved listening skills, since the brain has to work harder to distinguish different types of sounds in two or more languages.

As far as technology is concerned in education, it has significant potential to address some of the complex challenges in education today. Education has become ubiquitous as a result of information and communication technology (ICT) and the language of ICT is English. Therefore, language learning other than Bangla is a must. Children should also develop bilingual or multilingual capabilities, both oral and written.

However, lack of English communication skills continues to challenge Bangladesh’s industrial workforce to compete in the global market. University graduates in Bangladesh are still not well trained in English to the extent that they could enhance graduate opportunities and invest in their performance in the industry. Therefore, given the importance of the English in both global and regional contexts, policy makers need to rethink how the English curriculum can be redesigned to address such existing gaps between market demand and education system.

The writer is Non-Government Adviser, Bangladesh Competition Commission. He can be contacted at [email protected]