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Joel Toorenburgh - Blog 5: Expecting English

Joel Toorenburgh - Blog 5: Expecting English

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Blog post
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public_blog_post

**Disclaimer: The following is personal blog based on my individual experience in Dhaka, Bangladesh.**

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Questions motivating this blog... 

Why is this meeting in Bangla? Why am I working in a country where I don’t speak the language? Why won’t they speak English? Why should they speak English? Is it fair to expect them to speak English? Aren’t there so many good reasons why they speak Bangla? Shouldn’t I speak Bangla? Isn’t that impossible? 

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I’ve noticed when people answer the phones. Or when they give their phone numbers “zero one eight two three four three zero four eight eight”… On billboards too. One reads “Fried Chicken.” In fact, it’s almost everywhere: signs, websites, meetings, articles - you name it. It’s there. 

English.

A few years ago, I started questioning why English was my native language. The best answer I could really come up with had to do with Wolfe outmanoeuvring Montcalm on a field in Quebec way back when. New France fell and years on, the English became hegemonic in Canada.

It was once said that “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Today, the sun never seems to set on the English language. If the British started it, the Americans kept it going. It’s necessary for travel and business in many parts of the world. And it can connect people in tremendous ways… 

But, on the other hand, it’s also a massive privilege to be a native anglophone. Most native English-speakers do not speak another language and they don’t really have to, but shouldn’t they anyway? In the United States, only 1 in 5 can converse in a second-language. This despite the fact that by 2050, the US will have more Spanish-speakers than Mexico.

When I finished high school, I wasn’t really aware of language politics or any of the problems associated with English. I lived in Victoria and as its name implies, English dominated and language politics were notably absent. After high school, I started college and decided to take French as an elective. I figured that since I had spent most of my schooling life learning French, it would seem pretty foolish to just abandon it half-way through. After all, I hadn’t sung about pizza or le petit poisson for nothing. Though many - if not most kids - do abandon French in Canada after finishing high school. 

In college, I was lucky enough to have a teacher who really engaged me in learning. We studied Camus’ L’étranger and Voltaire’s Candide. And the enjoyment I got from these books pushed me to keep going. Eventually, I became more and more comfortable, and I started to feel a sort of ownership over French. As a student of political science, it gave me a new perspective on Canadian politics. But mostly, it made me realize how privileged native anglophones are and how arrogant they can sometimes be - not just in Canada, but around the world. 

Today, I consider myself as a bit of a lingophile. I love learning languages because, in my view, it is the gateway to culture and understanding. My interest in language has allowed me to explore things from a different perspective. It allows connection, colour. 

❝You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.❞

‒Geoffrey Willans

But that doesn’t mean that there are no problems with the way I use and expect English. When I was accepted to intern in Bangladesh, I knew from the beginning that it would be important to learn the language. I bought some books and tried to study as much as I could before leaving. But on arriving, I found myself ill-prepared. The Bangla language contains numerous characters and I had dedicated most of my study time to this script. Even though I can read just a bit, I regret learning the script because it has necessarily diverted my attention from more practical, everyday expressions. 

Now, more than three months in, I am getting more and comfortable with many aspects of the language: bartering, greeting, giving directions etc. Colleagues at work often comment on how well our Bangla is coming along and are generally impressed with what we have learned. 

Though there is still an expectation that our conversations will be in English, that they will speak my language. 

And I forget that this expectation is rooted in my privilege. I write this blog as an exercise for myself. I have benefitted from a number of privileges in life and it’s important to be reminded as to what that means. So for example, I have found myself frustrated at hour-long meetings that fully transpire in Bangla. I nod along or grasp at words even though I don’t understand most of it. Since we arrived in Bangladesh, these things have come up more than once. When we lost our laptops in June, we had to explain to the police over and over againwhat had happened. These communication failures are abundant.

❝ I know all those words, but that sentence makes no sense to me.❞

- Matt Groening 

Of course, it’s always easier to blame someone else than to actually examine the problem meaningfully.  

Bangladeshis speak Bangla in Bangladesh because it’s Bangladesh, not Engladesh. It should seem pretty obvious, right? 

And we, the privileged anglophones, often choose not to speak a second language, whereas in many cases those who cannot speak English are without choice. We should greatly appreciate the level of English that is spoken because it regularly makes our lives easier. I recently spoke with a colleague at RMMRU who already has an excellent mastery of English. He tells me that it is not possible to get C1- or C2-level English training in Dhaka. The British Council and other institutions do not offer English courses at this level. At the same time, if he wants a job at anykind of international institution, he must know English. For us, it’s a simple default, a box already ticked. For him, it’s an on-going struggle, especially at the higher levels of learning. 

English can serve to connect people and make life much easier: on my trip to Singapore, we saw how this can function. Singaporeans speak Mandarin, Tamil, and Malay. I see the merits of a cross-cultural language, but I also cringe at the imperialistic nature of English which nowadays I see as so entangled in American hegemony. It’s one reason I’ve always admired South Africa’s linguistic policy where the country’s eleven languages all have equal status. English can help to bridge the gaps between the different communities, but it doesn’t mean we should give up trying to speak to another person’s tongue.

❝If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.❞

‒Nelson Mandela

Language isn’t just about communication. Language is identity and it is culture. It deeply influences the way we operate and how we see the world around us. It helps us make sense of where and who we are. So, to impose English is essentially to impose a way of thinking and being.

That Dhaka does not surrender to this…

That meetings are held in Bangla…

And that I struggle in conversations and communication… 

Well that’s just the way it should be. And despite my personal frustrations, I wouldn’t have it any other way.