Sunday, February 14, 2010

Condition of English language in Bangladesh: Second language or foreign language

Language is an important aspect of our lives. In Bangladesh language played a key role in our liberation movement. In 1952, we observed the Language Movement which culminated into a nine month long liberation war in 1971. Today, Bangladesh is an independent country. More than 90% of our people speak in Bengali but another language that gained lots of importance over the year is English. Bangladesh was ruled by the British for two hundred years. Hence, English has been used for quite some times in our country. Though English does not have the status it used to have during the colonial period it still plays a very important role in our country. Along with Bangla, English is taught to students in schools and colleges in our country but in the constitution of Bangladesh, there is no mention of English language.

As I have mentioned earlier, that English language have been used in Bangladesh for quite sometime. During British period and Pakistan period, English enjoyed the status of official language. It served as a lingua franca between people of two different nations. During British period, English enabled communication between people of the subcontinent and Europe. In Pakistani era, it enabled communication between Urdu speakers and Bengali speakers. Post Independence, there was a surge in nationalism and the government tried to implement Bengali language in every sector. However, teaching of English continued in primary, secondary and tertiary level not because it was the official language but it became the language of trade and commerce. Over the years, the prominence of English continued to rise but the government yet failed to clarify its position in Bangladesh.

While doing my sociolinguistics course in North South University, I wrote a research paper titled “Condition of English in Bangladesh: Second language or foreign language.”

Mother tongue or first language is perhaps the most favorite thing for any person. The question of language has resulted into many conflicts and discontentment. The prime example of such discontentment is the Language Movement of 1952 in Bangladesh. On the other hand we can not live in isolation. We have to be in contact with the speakers of other languages. Bangladesh is considered to be a monolingual country in which more than 98% of the population is speakers of Bangla language. However, there are more than ten languages in such a small country like Bangladesh. Monipuri, Urdu, Chakma, Santali, Garo, Rakhain, Tipra- are just some of the other languages present in Bangladesh. The interesting thing is that Urdu is a Indo-European language but written in Arabic script, Santali belongs to the Mono-Khemar language family while Chakma belongs to the Chinese-Barmese language group. So, although Bangladesh is often portrayed as a country of linguistic unity based on Bangla language in reality it has notable linguistic diversity. To communicate with the speakers of other languages we either need to know their language or communicate in a Lingua-Franca that is comprehensible to both of us.

Today, the world has become a global village. Thanks to the advancement of communication system and technology. Every country is dependent on others for trade and commerce, education, politics etc. As a result, we have to constantly communicate with other countries and speakers of other languages. Third world countries like Bangladesh have to depend on foreign aid because they are not self-sufficient. As a result, many foreigners come to Bangladesh. A third factor is the factor of religion. The sacred language of the Muslims is Arabic, Sanskrit for Hindus, Pali for the Buddhists and Latin for the Christians. All these factors remind us the necessity for learning other language(s) in addition to our mother tongue. According to this reality many countries of the world have adopted a European language as second language which is often used in education, law court, economic activities and government works. These languages have most of the time official status in the constitution of those countries. Many of the cases the countries have adopted the language of their past colonial rulers as the second language. Sometimes these languages are also called official language. In many African countries we can see this picture. On the other hand, some European languages have become very important in the world for literary and economic purposes. For example, German and French are considered to be important languages of the world because both of them have influential literature and economic aspects associated with them. For example, many people in our country are interested to learn French because it may help them to get UN jobs and jobs in Multinational companies. Another attractive motivation for learning French in Bangladesh is that it may help us to immigrate to Canada as skill in French language gives a person some extra points in the point system of Canadian immigration.

The title of my research is "Status of English in Bangladesh: Second language or foreign language?" I have selected this topic because from sociolinguistic point of view the status of English is a very interesting one. On the one hand English language is dominantly present in every side of our national life while on the other hand in our constitution it is clearly declared that the language of the country is Bangla. In fact, nothing is said about the status of English language in our constitution. On one hand, economic activities in the private companies are carried out in English while there is a government law (Bangla procholon ain1987) that government offices must use Bangla in their official works. So from the government point of view Bangla is the national- official language of Bangladesh and English is the most important foreign language. But in reality English is the second language of the country and in many places English is more important than Bangla in Bangladesh.

Second language:

A second language is any language other than the first, or native, language learned; it is typically used because of geographical or social reasons. The term is to be distinguished from foreign language; linguist Eric Lenneberg uses second language in his critical period hypothesis to mean a language consciously learned or used by its speaker after puberty. In most cases, people never achieve the same level of fluency and comprehension in their second languages as in their first language.

Historically in Europe, the most widely used second language (or lingua franca) was Latin. It was used by the Church; by the Law (as it still is today); in Medicine (starting much later); Horticulture and biological classification of plants, animals, fruits, nuts, etc.

Latin was used so much across Europe that it was called the vulgar (or common tongue); this is why the Latin version of the Bible is called the Vulgate.

Nowadays, English is considered the world's most widespread second language; it is used in areas as diverse as the internet, television and radio, and international aviation.

The success of English throughout the world stems from two major causes: the far reaching influence of the British Empire, and the 20th century (and continuing) dominance of the United States in the fields of business and entertainment.

French was for a time the lingua franca in Europe. In history, both England and France were ruled by a single crown - the language used by the royal court was French (English was considered "the peasant's language"). Afterwards, as was the case with English, the French empire spread its language through colonization. French continues to be one of the world's most widely spoken languages. (Source: Wikipedia)

If we look at the definition of second language then we can easily say that English is the second language of Bangladesh. It is widely used in many parts of our national life. Many people watch English television channels and also use Internet. The students have to study it for twelve years and those who want to join civil service by attending BCS exam also have to sit for English examination. The only thing that is missing from the above definition is the fact that except for formal occasions no one speaks in English in Bangladesh. It is not the language used in home among family members and among friends in informal conversation.

Foreign language:

A foreign language is a language not spoken by the indigenous people of a certain place: for example, English is a foreign language in Japan. It is also a language not spoken in the native country of the person referred to, i.e. an English speaker living in Japan can say that Japanese is a foreign language to him or her.

Some children learn more than one language from birth or from a very young age: they are bilingual. These children can be said to have two mother tongues: neither language is foreign to that child, even if one language is a foreign language for the vast majority of people in the child's birth country. For example, a child learning English from her English mother in Japan can speak both English and Japanese, but neither is a foreign language to her. (Source- Wikipedia)

From the above definition, it is seen that foreign language refers to a language that is not native to a person. From this point of view English can be considered as a foreign language in Bangladesh since it is not native in our country. Hardly any Bangladeshi person speaks in English although many of them use it in education and business.

Official language:

An official language is something that is given a unique status in the countries, states, and other territories. It is typically the language used in a nation's legislative bodies, though the law in many nations requires that government documents be produced in other languages as well.

Officially recognized minority languages are often mistaken for official languages. However, a language officially recognized by a state, taught in schools, and used in official communication is not necessarily an official language. For example, Ladin and Sardinian in Italy and Mirandese in Portugal are only officially recognized minority languages, not official languages in the strict sense.

Half of the countries in the world have official languages. Some have only one official language, such as Albania, France, or Lithuania, despite the fact that in all these countries there are other native languages spoken as well. Some have more than one official language, such as Afghanistan, Belarus, Belgium, Bolivia, Canada, Eritrea, Finland, India, Paraguay, South Africa, and Switzerland.

In some countries, such as Iraq, Italy, Russia and Spain, there is an official language for the country, but other languages are co-official in some important regions. Some countries, such as Australia, Sweden, Tuvalu, and the United States have no official languages.

The official languages of some former colonies, typically French or English, are not the national languages or the most widely spoken language.

In contrast, as a consequence of nationalism, Irish is the "national language" of the Republic of Ireland and its first official language, although it is spoken by only a small fraction of its people. English, which is spoken by the majority, is described only as the second official language (Constitution of Ireland, Article 8).

In some countries, the issue of which language is to be used in what context is a major political issue.(Source-Wikipedia)

From the above definition, it is seen that the notion of official language is complicated. According to our constitution English can not be termed as the official language of Bangladesh since it has no status in our constitution. The only language that is mentioned in our constitution is Bangla. But English is allowed in our parliament and many government events. For example, when there is a government event in which some foreigners attend then in many cases the speakers use English language. Many important government documents are written both in Bangla and English. The parliament proceedings are kept into these two languages. When a government body organizes a fair then often the souvenir is published in English.


About the language of the country the Bangladeshi constitution clearly states:

"The state language.

The state language of the Republic is [Bangla]."

In the constitution nothing is mentioned about the status of English. English is not mentioned as a second language or official language. So if we take the status of English in our constitution then we cannot claim that English is a Second language or Official Language in Bangladesh.

English in Law court in Bangladesh:

After Independence the government took the initiative to implement Bangla language in law court. As a result, now the lower courts carry out their activities in Bangla but English is yet very influential in High Court and Supreme Court. If a lawyer wants to practice in Supreme court then he must have a good command over English language. Many of the judges still give their verdicts in English language. It seems that this trend of using English will remain for the foreseeable future.

English in Education sector in Bangladesh:

Formal and institutionalized education system started in Bangladesh during the British rule. At that time Bangladesh was part of British India. There was a debate about the medium of education. Raja Rammohan Roy argued that the medium should be English rather than Sanskrit or Persian. During the British period, the medium of education was largely in English. Calcutta University took an initiative in 1935 to introduce Bangla as a medium of education along with English. In Bangladesh the use of Bangla in college level started in the 1960s. Now students can answer in the examinations in Bangla or English. In the college level and university level, after 1971, the government tried to patronize Bangla and implement it by replacing English in the education sector but this did not came into reality because of some basic problems. The first problem is that there were not enough books of any field in Bangla language. This problem is more acute in science and technology. For example, there are almost no books in Bangla about computer technology that can be used as a reference book in the University level.

Actually there are three kinds of education systems in our country- Bangla medium, English medium, and Madrasa system. Bangla medium schools can be divided into two sections- government schools, and kindergarten schools. In the kindergarten schools more emphasis is given on English language than government schools. Some of the famous kindergarten schools of Dhaka are Viqarunnisa Noon School, Willes Little Flower Higher Secondary School, and Holy Cross Girls' High School. Although these schools belong to Bangla medium the students have to study 3-4 English books like: Radiant Way, Active English, Desk Work, Fundamental English, Brighter Grammar, and so on. On the other hand, in the government schools there is only one English book (English for Today) which is published by Bangladesh Text Book Board. The English medium schools do not follow Bangladeshi education system and are under the supervision of British Council. The medium of instruction in these schools is English and many of the students of English medium are even very weak in Bangla language. There are two kinds of Madrassas - Dakhil and Kawmi. The Kawmi Madrassas are not recognized by the government and do not receive any assistance from the government. In these Madrassas emphasis is given on learning Arabic, Persian, and Urdu while Bangla and English are neglected. In Dakhil Madrassas, emphasis is mainly given on Arabic and Bangla and English are not so much neglected.

So we can clearly see that the difference in education system in Bangladesh is solely based on the difference in the medium of education. Although Bangla is the national and official language of Bangladesh, it is the English medium education institutions that get more money. The rise of private universities has only increased the status and importance of English language in Bangladesh. There are now more than 50 private universities in Bangladesh and the medium of education in all of them is English. These universities charge 2 lakh to 5 lakh taka for bachelor courses. If the medium of education was in Bangla then hardly any student or parents would get interested to pay such huge money for the education in private universities.

From the above discussion it is clear that in our general education system, English has, equal if not, more importance than Bangla. In our education system, English is really the second language as all the students have to study it as a compulsory subject for twelve years.

English and Administration:

During the language movement, the people of Bangladesh were afraid that if Urdu was established as the state language of Pakistan, then all the government activities will be carried out in Urdu and our people will suffer. As a result of the language movement, the Pakistani regime kept on carrying out government activities in English language. After Bangladesh became independent, the government of Awami League decided to replace English with Bangla in administrative works but after the death of Sheikh Mujib, this process came to a halt and English continued to remain as the dominant language. It was during the rule of Ershad, “Bangla Procholon Aeen of 1987” was created and implemented. From that time, English started to lose its significance in administration. However, it has to be mentioned that all the international communication of Bangladesh government is carried out in English.

English in Economic activities:

The economy of Bangladesh is dependent on foreign aids and export of some common items like ready-made garments, jute, tea, fish etc. We also import a lot of things. Bangladesh is not economically self-sufficient. Trading is more popular than production. Trading requires constant communication with foreign companies. Many of the companies that are involved in trading have to use English in dealing with foreigners. Suppose, a company is trading with China, which is not an English speaking country, then the company has to contact the Chinese company in English. If we look at the advertisements of the private sector jobs then we would notice that most of the job advertisements are posted in English. Even most of the private sector job advertisements that are posted in Bengali newspapers are posted in English. Almost all the private jobs state that the applicants must have good proficiency in English language. Almost all the public limited companies publish their annual reports in English. Some of these companies produce a Bangla version of their annual report but the emphasis is always on English. So it is clear that English is the dominant language in our economic activities.

Comparison of English with Arabic, Sanskrit, and Pali in Bangladesh:

Arabic, Sanskrit and Pali are the religious languages of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists respectively. Even the uneducated people try to learn these languages as they are considered to be holy. If we compare the learning of English with these languages then we can see that English is given more importance. For example, the tuition fee of a English coaching center is much higher than that of an Arabic coaching centre. English private tutors get 4-5 times more money than Arabic private tutors (Huzur). So although Arabic has religious sentiment attached to it, English is considered to be more important as it has economic benefit.

Comparison of English foreign languages like French, German, and Farsi:

French and German have become very popular for economic reasons in our country. Learning these languages help us to increase our possibility to get jobs in various international organizations. Learning French is also helpful for getting immigration to Canada. There are good facilities to learn these languages in Dhaka University, Alliance Francaise, and Goethe Institute. Recently, the English Institute of North South University has introduced French course. On the other hand, during the Muslim reign, Persian was the language of the Royal administration and law court in Bangladesh. At present, a student can attend Farsi course for one semester by just paying tk. 250 in Iran Cultural Center but there are not many students who are interested to learn Farsi, French, and German. On the other hand, hundreds of students each year appear for TOEFL and IELTS exams in English language.

From the above picture it is clear that the status of English is much higher than foreign languages like German, French, and Persian. We can not deny the reality that if a person is good at English then he can earn money in any part of Bangladesh but if a person is good in French, German, or Persian he has hardly any scope to earn money by using his linguistic skills.


There is no doubt that English is the second language of Bangladesh but this reality is not reflected in our constitution. Officially Bangladesh is not known as an ESL country to the outside world. So, Bangladesh should be declared as an ESL country by the government without any delay. We learn English not because we like Shakespeare or Dickens. We learn English out of every day necessity. If Bangladesh is declared as an ESL country and English language is given a clear status in the constitution then it will not only reflect the reality but also will help us in many ways. Now, Bangladesh is desperately trying to attract foreign investors. Before any company comes to Bangladesh for exploring investment opportunities, one of the key areas they would look for is the availability of English graduates and they also expect that the normal workers will have basic understanding of English language. If we become an ESL country, then these foreign companies while searching about Bangladesh will get assured about the strong presence of English language in this country.

The same picture is there about educational sector. Many Bangladeshi students want to go to developed countries like USA, UK, Canada, and Australia for higher education. If Bangladesh is declared as an ESL country then these students will be benefited because then the universities of those countries will get the idea that English has special significance in Bangladesh.

So, I recommend to the government of Bangladesh that English should be declared as the second language of the country by amending the constitution.


Bangladesh is the only country in the world whose people sacrificed their lives for the language. Now the historical language movement of 1952 is acknowledged internationally as the International Mother Language Day. It is true that our people are emotional about their language, Bangla. However, it is equally true that now our people have become desperate about getting skilled in English language. As a result, there are more than fifty private universities now in Bangladesh. If North South Offered BBA and Computer Science courses in Bangla medium then they would not get even 10% of the number of students they have now. It is now good time that we finish the great contradiction about the language issue and declare Bangladesh as an ESL country for our own benefit.


1. Dr. Musa, Monsur. BHASHACINTA PROSONGO O PORIDHI. Dhaka:Bangla

Academy, 2002.

2. Dr. Musa, Monsur. BANGLADESHER RASHTRABHASHA. Dhaka:Bangla

Academy, 2002.


BHASHATATTA. Dhaka:Bangla Academy, 1996.

4. Dr. Musa, Monsur. BANGLA PARIBHASHA: ITIHAS O SAMASYA. Dhaka:Bangla

Academy, 2002.

1 comment:

  1. The question of language has resulted into many conflicts and discontentment. The prime example of such discontentment is the Language Movement of 1952 in Bangladesh. In public works environment we can not live in isolation. We have to be in contact with the speakers of other languages.