English Studies in Bangladesh
This paper looks at the current state of English Studies in Bangladesh and how it is different from the methods prevalent in other parts of the subcontinent. It tries to look at the political origins of Bangladesh and how it has affected the course of English Studies in the country. It also looks at the education system and the almost overnight growth of it, lack of proper administration and monitoring of English language teaching that inevitably has affected the quality and course of English Studies in Bangladesh.
Keywords: English Studies; Bangladesh; education system; linguistic nationalism; ELT
English departments in Bangladesh have been traveling in paths that have taken them away from the one pursued overall in the other part of the subcontinent. The main reason why the road to English Studies in Bangladesh has diverged thus is primarily because Bangladesh originated in linguistic nationalism, for it was the Pakistani attempt to impose Urdu as the only state language of the country soon after the partition of the subcontinent that triggered the movement leading to its birth on December 16, 1971. Inevitably, emotions about Bengali ran high in the country afterwards and the study of English at all levels was downscaled. In fact, except in English departments and a handful of the really good Bengali ones, and a few specialized centers of learning, the medium of instruction in universities soon became Bengali. But politicking by the military government of General H. M. Ershad led to further downscaling of English teaching at the tertiary level in the 1980s. The net result is that English is, on the whole, taught poorly in our schools and colleges at this time and hardly prepares students for the kind of skills undergraduates require for advancing in English languages and literature courses at the university level. A third reason why English Studies in Bangladesh diverged from the route(s) taken elsewhere was the export of ELT by Britain at a time when the marketing of the language became part of the globalizing, neo-liberal strategies of its government. A fourth development affecting the study of English in Bangladesh is the decision taken by successive governments after democracy had returned to the country in the 1990s to encourage private universities to flourish; almost overnight (so to speak), Bangladesh witnessed the birth of over a hundred universities. Finally, with the advent of short semesters, “multiple choice” questions and note books and examination guides, teachers have been shortening syllabuses and students taking shorter routes to success in examinations than before. The net result of these developments taking place steadily in the first 40 years of independent Bangladesh is that English departments began preferring syllabi that incoming students with little exposure to the language before supposedly could handle easily. Also, the now burgeoning private sector seemed to put greater emphasis on language teaching in English departments. The literature part of the curriculum was thus scaled down over the decades; moreover, there are ELT “streams” as well as literature ones on offer in many places. I will end by focusing on some recent positive aspects of English Studies in Bangladesh that give reasons to look forward to improvements in the teaching-learning situation and the creative use of the language in the future. The focus of this paper is on the state of English Studies in Bangladesh and why I think we have been slipping behind. I will throw light on why there is relatively little Bangladeshi writing in English that has had any impact anywhere—inside the country or outside it.
There are at least five reasons why the path of English Studies in Bangladesh following has turned out to be increasingly pot-holed since 1971. Once upon a time, when we were part of undivided Bengal and British India, there was a pedagogy in place ensuring that those who were going to school, and the fortunate few in East Bengal who continued to advance themselves educationally by going to college and a handful of universities, including the University of Dhaka, had access to literature in English and the English language at a level that prepared them well, directly or indirectly, either for teaching or work in the civil service. When we in East Bengal became part of Pakistan, English continued to have its distinctive place, for there was no question in anyone’s mind that it was the language of administration, and that teachers at all level needed to learn the language for access to further learning as well as advancement in offices and business. Although no one in the Pakistan I grew up in would have perhaps acknowledged this officially, it was also the indispensable “link” language between the two wings of Pakistan.
However, and I cannot emphasize this point enough, Bangladesh is a nation created because of a movement at the heart of which was linguistic nationalism. No sooner had Pakistan been partitioned from India that west Pakistani leaders at the helm of the nation then blundered fatally as far as the nascent nation was concerned by imposing Urdu as its one and only state language. One needs merely to read Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s posthumously published Oshamapto Attojibani or Unfinished Memoirs to realize the enormity of the blunder the Pakistanis had made, and feel something of the intensity of the reaction of Bengalis of the province at that time. In fact, less than a year after the partition of India and the creation of Pakistan, Mujib, once an activist for the cause of Pakistan in Kolkata, and now at the forefront of the East Pakistan Muslim Student League, was agitating with others in Dhaka to declare on 11 March, 1948 that this would be ‘Bengali language day’ (Rahman 97). Soon there was widespread agitation all over East Pakistan. The movement climaxed bloodily when on February 21, 1952 Pakistani security men ended up killing a number of Bengali demonstrators in Dhaka. As you all perhaps know, this was the beginning of the end of Pakistan. Bengali continued to root itself as the state language of the eastern province of Pakistan; by the end of 1971 it would be the only national language of Bangladesh.
As an unforeseen backlash, in independent Bangladesh, linguistic nationalism marginalized even English over a period of time and did so in a manner that soon began eroding the foundations of the English language education that had been erected in this part of the province for well over a century. The first decisive step that embodied a government linguistic policy that would marginalize English in independent Bangladesh was taken by the 1974 Kudrat-e-Khuda Education Commission. Apparently, those who drafted this influential report felt strongly that the “continuing use of English” as “the medium of instruction” at the higher levels “as a result of the colonial educations till prevalent” had been creating “major drawbacks in the field of science, technical education and commerce” (Bangladesh Education Commission Report 13). The Commission therefore recommended that ‘effective steps” be taken “to use Bengali as the medium of instruction in the higher stages of education as well”. It did recommend that English be made a “compulsory language from Class VI to the terminal class of the higher secondary stage”, but it wanted “greater stress” be given to “language rather than literature”. The Commission report went on to recommend that “the special application of the language and its phonetics have to be learned, teachers must be well trained, modern textbooks have to be used and adequate provisions made for modern appliances” (14).
But there was no real attempt to redesign English teaching at schools and colleges or re-equip classrooms in any systematic manner to carry out the well-meaning subsidiary intentions of the Commission. As a result, there was a marked deterioration in the teaching and learning situation of English in the wake of the new language policy adopted in Bangladesh. The fact that English language schools were shut down at this time, and that many senior Hindu teachers had been leaving this part of Bengal from the 1960s onwards in the second exodus of Bengali Hindus after the first one that took place during partition meant that these were additional complicating factors contributing to the steady decline in standards of English language education in the country. The Bangladesh University Grants Commission did create a task force to improve English language teaching in the country in 1976, and the British Council did play an advisory role and send a handful of teachers annually to Britain in the late 1970s to help teachers acquire the requisite teaching skills, but these were scanty measures applied sporadically, and so, insufficient to tackle the fast deteriorating state of English language education in Bangladesh.
In fact, other developments in the language policies adopted subsequently in the 1980s led to a further deterioration in English language teaching conditions in Bangladesh. A key development stemmed from the military dictator General H. M. Ershad’s policies. In power from 1982 to 1990, he felt he had to play the populist card by further sidelining English. Consequently, during his reign English was not only absent from primary school instruction but also no longer considered compulsory for college level students. In 1987 a government decree ensured that Bengali became the sole language of public administration from then on. The University of Dhaka itself saw almost all B. A. (Hons.) and M. A. courses being taught in Bengali; the use of Bengali language textbooks now became the norm in classrooms in nearly all departments. Around this time, the M. A. (Preliminary) stream in English departments that used to offer a terminal degree in the language for college teachers lacking an honors degree who would teach it in schools and colleges after graduation was scrapped.
Not surprisingly, before this decade was over, many educators at higher levels and civil service administrators began to feel that the resulting enfeeblement of the English language at the national level and its continuing marginalization in higher education were problems that needed to be addressed urgently; clearly, the trend towards sidelining English at all levels was not desirable. These educators felt that while English literature could be dispensed with, the English language teaching system needed to be revamped, and the persistent decline as far as English usage and teaching standards were concerned had to be reversed. The panacea, it was perceived by many at the time, was the subject that the British Council was promoting, not without a lot of self-interest—English Language Teaching or ELT. Here was pedagogy supposedly exclusively geared to teaching English to second-language speakers in countries such as Bangladesh where the language was slipping into a zone located between a second language and a foreign one.
To me, however, the advent of ELT is another contributory factor in the slide in English teaching and learning standards in Bangladesh. This is not because of the subject itself, for of course there is much in it of practical use. I have no doubt too that it is specifically geared towards improving English language teaching in every way. I am sure as well that most traditional literature teachers in our part of the subcontinent could be easily and rightly accused of ignoring the need to teach the language to incoming students who were getting weaker and weaker in it over the decades. ELT or ESL pedagogy has a lot to offer to Bangladeshis that could compensate for the lack of language teaching in English departments of public universities run by teachers at that time holding on to traditional literature syllabuses, blithely indifferent to the diet that had been enfeebling the English language acquisition ability of their students. I should add in this context that my exposure to Composition courses in North American universities both as a Graduate Teaching Assistant and as a teacher taught me things that I feel could also be of importance for us and be an alternative or a supplement to what ELT has to offer.
But the British Council stepped in with its “language aid” packages at a time when Margaret Thatcher was redefining aid in terms of neoliberalism. The agency from this period onwards would have to generate some income for its workings as would British universities that did not have sufficient endowments and access to funding. ELT now became a way of generating such income and sustaining English departments. Indeed, and as western critics like Robert Phillipson noted in his 1992 book Linguistic Imperialism have noted, there was a business agenda associated with the newly emerged discipline that often led to packaged and ready-made solutions imposed from a distance or through fly-by-night type experts and consultants.
This was how Communicative Language Teaching, the cornerstone of ELT when it first came to Bangladesh, became the new mantra for English language teaching in the country from the late 1980s. One-year degree courses and diplomas centering around it meant that a generation of teachers were created who had quick-fix imported solutions to deep-rooted and widespread problems in English language teaching. Textbooks were now rushed into print by ELT graduates where poetry and prose—or if you like, creative writing—were dispensed with in favor of skimpy exercises based on supposedly “real-life situations” and drills. Scant attention was paid to local classroom situations, class sizes and teacher training. In the 1990s we thus witnessed, on the one hand, the spread of ELT-inspired CLT syllabuses and modes of instruction, and on the other, the scrapping of a pedagogy that had taken roots in the subcontinent over generations, now dubbed almost dismissively as “the grammar-translation method”. Moreover, large classrooms and adverse learning conditions in rural areas meant not only the absence of audio-visual instruction but also the almost total lack of intensive interaction in English, and any kind of sustained use of the language in classrooms. And of course there was almost no possibility of pursuing English outside them. Perhaps we need to be reminded too at this point of history that there was no possibility of blended learning at that time or access to the net. Consequently, communicative language teaching existed for the most part on paper, and not in actual practice throughout most of the country. The lack of literary components meant lack of variety and imaginative content in the CLT packages created. Moreover, and surely paradoxically, rote learning flourished as never before, effectively defeating the main purpose of communicative language teaching.
By the closing years of the 1980s, I was among a handful of colleagues in the English department of the University of Dhaka who felt that the English department curriculum would have to be revamped since it needed to offer at least a few English language courses to students who had rarely done intensive reading in the language and written things on their own in the examinations they had to pass to come to the tertiary level. Our solutions included designing a syllabus with gradients that would make our students progress from a handful of short texts to longer ones. They would be receiving basic instruction in how to read and write as well as taught the basics of critical interpretation in their first two years. The syllabus was downsized and ELT courses made part of the final years of the B. A. (Hons.) syllabus in our department out of the realization that a substantial number of our graduates would end up teaching in schools and colleges and needed to be introduced to the pedagogy. Subsequently, our department introduced an ELT “stream” at the master’s level as an alternative to the literature one out of the realization that those students focused on a teaching career in schools and colleges would benefit from a full package of ELT courses.
But in the 1990s, we in English departments of Bangladeshi universities continued to feel the full impact of the continuous weakening of the English language teaching structures that had been taking place from the 1970s onwards. The marginalization of English, the advent of hurriedly produced textbooks at the matriculation and intermediate levels designed according to imported CLT notions, the absence of literature components in them, the dearth of teachers who could use the language with adequate fluency in large classrooms, or trained to teach according to ELT methodology, were all factors contributing to students coming to higher education with little preparation for the courses they would have to undertake.
When we also take into account the exponential increase in school and college going students, and the increased intake of students at the university level, it will become obvious that quality was being compromised everywhere in all kinds of ways. In some cases, multiple choice examinations were introduced at one stage in the examinations these students were taking, and there was now even talk of question “banks” that they would resort to. As a consequence, skimming and rote learning seemed even more preferable than before.
Even in the university, multiple choice questions were deployed to deal with students applying in large numbers for admission to English departments. The consequence, its teachers soon realized, was that students were admitted to them who had only rudimentary language skills. How could they be taught the language given the time frame that would enable them to read English literary texts or write about them in an acceptable manner? Alarmed at the quality of students being admitted, in 2014 my colleagues and I persuaded the Dean of Arts, himself an English professor, and members of his Admissions Committee, to allow us to take an admission test where we would set questions that would allow us to admit students who by passing it proved that they had the background needed to study English at the university level. The result was horrifying and soon made headlines in all Bangladeshi newspapers, for only 2 students out of the 1500 who had taken the test passed it satisfactorily!
But there was a fourth factor that would contribute to the falling standards of English language teaching in the country. This stemmed from decisions taken by successive government to increase means of accessing higher education throughout the country in all possible ways. With the return of democracy to the country after 15 years of military dictatorships in the 1990s, more and more public universities were opened all over the country. In addition, many degree colleges were now brought under the umbrella of what was named the “National University” where Honors courses would be offered in English and a few other subjects which were in demand. Moreover, from 1993 onwards, private universities were allowed to operate, initially on a limited scale, but later in large numbers.
In fact, the numbers involved here are quite staggering. The National University had over 2000 component/affiliated colleges, not a few of which offered B. A. (Hons.) and M. A. degrees. When I googled the University Grants Commission postings on the internet while writing this part of my paper, I found 107 private universities and 47 public ones listed. In other words, in less than thirty years over 140 universities had come into existence! Almost all of them offered English language courses, and quite a few of them had English departments admitting students to their programs. But where were could they possibly be getting their instructors from and how ready were they to teach the language to students fed on a very light diet of English previously for only some years?
The fifth factor that was impacting on students by the turn of the century was the introduction of the semester system in public universities, perhaps the one instance when they followed a path in which private universities had taken the lead. This meant that syllabuses had to be shortened and adjusted according to academic calendars where credit hours often had no place. I would say that at the University of Dhaka our syllabuses have been shortened considerably to keep pace with the two semester a year demand of the curriculum. In most private universities, it is deemed profitable to have three semesters instead of two and so the academic content of a typical paper can be even sparser there than in the public ones.
Of course, not all developments were negative as far as the study of English language and literature in our universities is concerned. The government, for its part, began to take notice of the problems in English education by the turn of the century. In the National Educational Policy formulated in 2010 by a committee of which I was a member, it was decided that Bangladesh needed to pay more emphasis to the teaching of English, along with mathematics and the sciences in a manner that would allow it to “build up a digital Bangladesh” (National Education Policy 2010). Subsequently, school and college textbooks were redone to incorporate more reading and writing exercises containing material that would involve students in more extended activities in the classrooms, and would also involve them more imaginatively than was the case previously.
As always, the best public universities kept attracting at least some outstanding students who had advanced themselves from school to college and from college to university because of the love of the subject, and who wanted to excel in it as much as they could. Many of them were the type who habitually read outside the syllabus as well as what was prescribed in it and taught in class. Some of these students and others who joined them formed study groups and began using the English language amongst themselves outside the classroom as much as they could. I think many of our teachers too can justly take pride in seeing the average student, who seemed totally lost in her or his first semester in classrooms where English was rarely used, responding in the language and writing reasonably well, and not unconfidently, by the time they left the department. It was also heartening to see students from rural and less privileged background who now constitute the overwhelming majority in our public universities growing in confidence year by year. At least a few of the students I have identified in the preceding sentences of this paragraph have eventually ended up writing creatively in English, I should add.
But there were other positive developments as well that I can note in passing. One was the return of democratic governance in Bangladesh in the 1990s that coincided with the advent of globalization that has led to a booming economy and increased remittance. Certainly, our economy began growing as never before. One consequence of this was that English medium schools made a comeback at this time. The upper middle class and the upper class increasingly began to chaperone their children with an eye to foreign education and the knowledge that English was the essential medium for them and so there was now a demand for English medium schools that was met. The best private universities could draw on these students coming to them; a few of them even ended up in the best public universities. But greater affluence and the desire of parents as well as their children to study and even stay abroad made the best Bengali medium schools too to pay more emphasis to English language teaching in their schools. Since quite a few of these students from the best Bengali medium schools came to our departments, it was heartening for public university faculty members to teach them and see them have a positive effect on their peers. More and more teachers returning to the country with literature/language teaching expertise acquired overseas also impacted positively on the English teaching/learning situation as well. I believe that ELT itself had developed a lot by this time and recent teachers coming with a degree in it or in TEFL or TESOL have greater ability to implement language education suited to local needs than before.
Another positive development that I would like to point out in this context is the increased use of the net. Initially, of course, only students from privileged backgrounds had easy access to the information highway but before long most students could google and prepare notes on their own from what they found in the net in ways that ultimately made them read in English a lot more than their predecessors had been doing. Soon, they were resorting to the new media and accessing lectures available online and on YouTube, and beginning to do presentations in digitally equipped classrooms in our university. On the whole, those who could afford to make use of digital sources seemed to me to be doing quite well in classrooms. Covid-19 has only accentuated this trend as far as English classrooms are concerned.
A final positive development that I would like to share with you in discoursing on the state of English Studies in Bangladesh has to do with creative writing. A few writers of Bangladeshi origin, not to mention writers based in the country itself, have been recognized outside the country, but Adib Khan, Monica Ali, Tahmima Anam and Zia Haider Rahman have spent much the greater part of their lives abroad and therefore need only be mentioned in passing here. After partition and till our independence, almost all creative writers, including those who were more than competent in English, chose to write in Bengali, no doubt because of the spirit of linguistic nationalism inspiring them then. Thus Syed Waliullah preferred to write his best known work Lal Shalu in Bengali in 1948 and only translated it into English in 1967 as Tree Without Roots; Razia Khan, one of my teachers at the University of Dhaka, wrote some very good poems in English but did not collect them as books, preferring to publish fictional and verse volumes in Bengali instead in her lifetime. After independences, for almost two decades, except for Kaiser Haq, my dear friend and colleague, and Niaz Zaman, my teacher and respected colleague, there were no significant creative writers residing in Bangladesh and writing creatively in English that I can think of now. The reasons had to do with the state language policy in the 1970s and 80s and the resulting diminishing presence of the language in the educational system and in public discourse.
It was only from the late 1990s that this fallow period in Bangladeshi writing in English began to end and English writing in Bangladesh started to appear with some regularity in our country. Now that English medium schools were allowed to operate and more and more Bangladeshis were studying overseas and coming into contact with a language in everyday use in many contexts in the country as well as abroad, creative writing in English flourished as never before. UPL or University Press Limited was one prominent publishing house that felt that it could publish creative writing in English; some little magazines also began to emerge by the new century such as Six Seasons Review and Bengal Lights. The fact that the Dhaka Lit Fest has been regularly taking place in the Bangla Academy since 2012 and has been increasingly attracting large crowds also indicates a greater receptivity to, and demand for, creative writing in English in our part of the world.
Indeed, in the new century, and I feel for the first time in the literary history of Bangladesh, one noticed the English language being used not merely for official and business purposes or only infrequently for creative work by a handful of writers, but also sustained attempts to attract readership at home or abroad by more and more poets and novelists. There were at least some encouraging signs for them now as well as literary groups and little magazines. Publishing ventures like writers.ink and Bengal Lights Books attempted to root themselves in the literary scene. And I can mention a new generation of English language writers coming into prominence such as Kazi Anis Ahmed, who writes noteworthy fiction, Shazia Omar, who has had works published in India, and Saad Z Hossain, who has been picked up by American publishers but is also based in Dhaka like the other two authors I mentioned just now. But to me it is a matter of great regret that Numair Choudhury, who too was based in Dhaka, had his work published posthumously; his very lively debut 2019 novel Babu Bangladesh is to me an unforgettable work, and one that is surely indicative of more such memorable works in English that will be, hopefully, coming out of Bangladesh soon from a new generation of writers.
Nevertheless, Bangladeshi writing in English has some way to go and the language needs to be cultivated as a second language more assiduously for all kinds of reasons. Recent developments to me are all positive but there is a lot of work to be done by academics and authors to recover grounds lost as far as the teaching/learning of the language is concerned. As a senior academic in Bangladesh’s premier university, at a time when it and its English department is celebrating its centenary year, in the same year that the country is going to celebrate its golden jubilee, I believe that those of us who have rooted ourselves in the country and want to see it go from strength to strength must deploy our expertise and imagination fully to contribute to the language’s future in every which way we can.
Bangladesh Education Commission Report. Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics, 1974, http://lib.banbeis.gov.bd/query2.php. Accessed 22 Aug. 2021.
National Education Policy 2010. Ministry of Education (Bangladesh), 31 Dec. 2010, https://moedu.gov.bd/site/page/318a22d2-b400-48a7-8222-303ab11cc205/National-Education-Policy-2010-. Accessed 22 Aug. 2021.
Phillipson, Robert. Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford OUP, 1992.
Tharoor, Shashi. The Battle of Belonging: On Nationalism, Patriotism, and What It Means to Be Indian. Aleph Book Company, 2020.
Rahman, Sheikh Mujibur. The Unfinished Memoirs. Translated by Fakrul Alam. University Press Limited, 2012.
Date: December 24, 2021