Is the Bengali Language Losing its Importance for the New Generation?

Doyel’s daughter, Diti was 3 years when the family had moved to Delhi. Diti was admitted to a Delhi school where she had to take up Hindi as her second language. As a thoroughbred “Bangali”, it was difficult for Doyel to digest the fact that her daughter will not learn Bengali as a language. “My first thoughts were, she would not be able to read Sukumar Ray! How is that even possible?” Doyel’s next stop was the bookshop of the most popular Bengali publisher in Chittaranjan Park. She was determined to grow up Diti on the golden treasure trove that Bengali literature is. “After all, your mother tongue is a vital part of who you are, your identity – tomar parichay!” says a charged up Doyel.

Let us shift our focus to our very own city of joy, Kolkata. Prabir, a small-time draughtsman in a medium-sized publishing house and his wife, a Bengali teacher in a government school, is working night and day to put their little son in an English medium school. “What would you achieve from learning Bangla? How many speak that language anymore?” quips Prabir. “My son has to learn English to be able to do something big in life.”

While the dichotomy of the views can be uncomfortable for many, not many can deny that these opposites exist in the world of Bengalis today, especially those living in Kolkata and West Bengal. And while we raise storm in a teacup, the language of Tagore, Nazrul, Bhibhutibhusan and many more literary stalwarts whose contributions has made Bangla what it is today, is dying a progressive death.  “And we are the ones slitting its throat” — its Doyel again.

Bengalis Are Ashamed to Speak in Bengali? Or Is Bengali Really Losing its Relevance among its Youth

Ask any outsider who would tell you that Bengalis do not take lightly to criticisms about their culture and heritage. In fact, Bengalis are sensitive, rather touchy about their “Bengaliness”. Bengali heritage and culture, its literature and music are matters of great pride for any traditional Bengali. But is the same pride being translated when it comes to their mother tongue? “Do you speak in Bengali when you walk into a glitzy shop in a top-notch mall in Kolkata? – asks Kamal, a budding poet who regularly contributes to a Bengali little magazine. No, we don’t.

Many are of the view that Bengalis are ashamed of speaking in Bengali. The language has come to be associated with “being not aspirational enough”. We hesitate to speak in Bangla in our own city, to fellow Bangalis. There is a common perception about Bengali being associated with “not-so-successful.” It is somehow “not so cool” to speak in Bengali anymore!” – opines Kamal, of the younger generation. The young generation refuses to speak Bengali and it is losing its popularity to English or even Hindi as a medium of communication.

English Affords More Opportunities

This has its reasons. At the national competitive exams, Bengali-medium students are beating a retreat because of their lack of knowledge of English. Recognising the mass exodus of students towards private English medium schools and fearing that Bengalis will eventually be disqualified from the job market, the West Bengal government has introduced new education policies that point towards the importance of English and has introduced English as medium of instruction in over 100 government and government-aided schools.

“To young people, Bengali has not lost its charm, but its relevance. Learning and speaking English will give them jobs. We cannot hold the millennials wrong for being ambitious or aspirational, can we?” –Nirmal, a Youtube intellectual/influencer, tries to set the perception right.

Rich Heritage but is Bengali Dying? Are we Guilty of Killing our Mother Tongue?

“And this for a language whose speakers laid down their lives fearlessly to free themselves from the onslaught of Urdu and birthed a new nation – Bangladesh!”– says Nandini, a teacher in a reputed English medium school. International Mother Tongue Day is celebrated worldwide on 21st February to commemorate the Bengali Language Movement of 1952 in the country that is now called Bangladesh. The language with its long history dates back to the 12th century BCE and shares some connections to Sanskrit. Today, Bengali is the fifth most spoken language in the world (thanks to Bangladesh) and the second-most in India. But numbers of speakers of a language is neither evidence of its viability, nor acceptance and definitely not popularity.

Bengali by Tagore

Many believe that globalization and the free economy with its infiltration of international communication media are the roots of all problems. “But should we not blame ourselves for restricting our beloved Mother Tongue? What happens to a language when we reduce words to abbreviations and sentences into acronyms?” – Nandini poses this valid question. “We shun people who speak in the rhetoric of winding sentences and tag them as “Rabindrik”. We are eroding away its resonating words, breaking down its sentences, and one day Bengali will no longer exist. And that’s scary! – laments Nandini.

Nandini’s husband, Deep vehemently opposes. “Look at the bumper sales at the Kolkata Book Fair. Which other regional language in the world has so many readers and inspires such top-quality literature?” – he wants to know. The recently concluded Kolkata Book Fair was attended by a record number of people – 25 lakh – two lakh more than last year and sold books worth 23 crore, again a two crores increase from 2019. “Our love for the written words – literature, be that in Bengali or any other language, will keep our Mother Tongue alive” Deep is bursting with positivity.

While so many speak the language, the big question remains as to how many still love and respect it? Maybe Doyel and her likes will remain the foot soldiers for a language that’s labelled as the sweetest by UNESCO or may be Diti and her friends will resuscitate Bengali that’s gasping for life.

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