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[Essay] Language-in-education policy in Bangladesh

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So, I thought I'd share an essay I wrote for my postgraduate studies in linguistics. The class was 'language planning and policy' and I must admit I found this essay both challenging and satisfying to research and write.

Describe and evaluate an example of language policy/planning in education. Are the outcomes as desired? What are the successes and pitfalls (if any) of the policy and its implementation?



The Partition of India in 1947 featured the carving of a geographical divide that focused on purely religion alone, believed by historians to be almost unique in this aspect of division. However, it is even more fascinating that whole identities, complete with their own set of self-determined beliefs, have borne out of claiming ownership and standardisations of language alone. While this applies to the divide of British India into Pakistan and modern-day India, with Urdu and Hindi respectively taking their mantle as national languages, the same can be more stressed when pertaining to the relatively young nation of Bangladesh. During their East Pakistan era, a successful civil war rounded off the conclusion of a passionately articulated language movement.


Today, Bangladesh faces enormous challenges in social and economic development against a backdrop of a global arena. From the exodus of their Mother Language movement comes a variety of issues in Bangladesh pertaining to poverty, national disasters, rife political corruption and tensions between the state and ethnic groups of indigenous minorities to name a few. As the state of Bangladesh attempts to unify their citizens to embolden their identity through the sole state language of Bangla, language policy in Bangladesh often centres on this apparent need to preserve the patriotic roots and subtext of the liberation movement.


One of the societal elements which is affected by the nuances of Bangladeshi (and pre-British Indian) history is educational institutions, be they state schools, privately funded schools and so on. The perceived goal to preserve Bangla brings forth a set of challenges that inhibit the effectiveness of its policies. This is something that is not unique to Bangladesh as the outlined factors are also common in other regions – issues pertaining to neglected linguistic communities, the quality of teaching dissemination and certainly the dilemma of contextualising the status of the national language when compared to the increasing need to incorporate the teaching of English for multinational development purposes.


This essay will cover and assess the impact of the above issues on the effectiveness of Bangladeshi language-in-education policy, focusing on the 2010 National Education Policy for primary and secondary education. This will be explored alongside a brief overview of the historical background of the birth of the nation with regards to tensions largely caused by post-Partition Pakistani language policies. With the issues outlined with reference to various language-in-educational policy theoretical frameworks, some suggestions will be made to address possible solutions.


A historical overview of Bangladesh’s birth: the language ‘problem’ of Urdu


Before detailing the language-in-education policies in Bangladesh, it is necessary to highlight the context in which Bangla became its unifying state language. This involves returning back to the era of pre-Partition, where the establishment of the state of Pakistan was based on the two-nation theory of founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah (1876-1948), who argued that the Hindus and Muslims of India constituted two separate nations (Mohsin, 2003, pp. 87).


Language planning was primarily focused upon a goal of nation-building around a perceived Islamic identity. Jinnah’s political party, the All-India Muslim League, had intellectual roots with educationalist and philosopher Sir Syed Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), where elites of a similar nature romanticised past eras of Muslim rule (of Urdu and Persian speakers) in the subcontinent.


According to Ayres (2003, pp. 56), in parallel to a Hindi movement to symbolise a language for the ‘Hindus’, this in turn led the Muslim League to identify Urdu as the ‘language for the Muslims’ and in extension, the language of a Pakistani nation. However, this idea of a homogenous unified nation was met by language demographics showing the contrary – despite the insistence of imposing Urdu as the sole state language of Pakistan, census data from 1951 (Rahman, 1996) and 1981 (Addleton, 1981) shows a starkly multilingual language community. The census data shows the meagre number of Urdu speakers throughout Pakistan’s early years, and similar figures are also reflected in more recent census data.


Table 1 – Languages of Pakistan (1951 census)
Language Percent (East & West Pakistan) Percent (West Pakistan)
Bengali 56.0 0.50
Punjabi 29.0 67.08
Urdu 7.3 7.05
Sindhi 5.9 12.85
Pashto 4.9 8.16
Baluchi 1.5 3.04
Brahvi - 0.70

Table 2 – Languages of Pakistan (1981 census)
Language Percent (urban) Percent (rural) Percent (total population)
Punjabi 49.9 47.5 48.2
Urdu 24.4 1.3 7.6
Pashto 8.0 15.1 13.2
Sindhi 6.4 13.8 11.8
Siraiki 4.1 12.0 9.8
Others 3.4 2.6 2.8
Baluchi 1.7 3.5 3.0
Hindko 1.5 2.8 2.4
Brahvi 0.5 1.5 1.2

Unsurprisingly, this alienation of language communities of other than Urdu in way of language policy brought a large risk of ethnic conflict, far from the cohesive Muslim nation that the Pakistani government envisaged through the promotion of Urdu. With exception to the Punjabis (their language sharing grammatical and syntactic traits with Urdu) who enjoyed security in bureaucratic state services, the lack of recognition of other ethnic groups flared up backlashes and even bloodshed, such as the Urdu-speaking Muhajir group settling in Karachi at Partition finding an advantage in seeking government employment at the expense of the Sindhis, whose language was made subservient to Urdu.


This made integration between the two groups almost an untenable objective. Under government policy through various regimes, tensions have exacerbated into permanent ethnic tensions and separatist political parties such as the Mohajir Qaumi Movement for broader political crises alongside waves of Sindhi nationalism. Elsewhere, the Pakistani government viewed usage of Pashto speakers with suspicion, fearing that shared borders with other Pathans in Afghanistan would lead to an uprising, hence Pakistani efforts to quell and monitor the promotion of Pashto as much as possible.


Table 1 shows East Pakistani citizens as being the largest linguistic group in the new state, despite efforts of the Pakistani government to neglect the status of the language. Plans were proposed in 1949 by the central minister for education to introduce Arabic script for Bengali, arguing that ‘each Bengali letter is associated with this or that god or goddess of Hindu pantheon […] Pakistan and Devanagari script cannot co-exist […] To ensure a bright and great future for the Bengali language it must be linked with the Holy Qur’an […] Hence the necessity and importance of Arabic script’ (Anisuzzaman, 1993, pp. 107). As Urdu was viewed by the East Pakistanis as hegemonic (capable of destroying their cultural identity), these ideas were met with clear resistance and were scrapped soon after.


On February 21, 1952, police opened fire in Dhaka on students protesting the imposition of Urdu over East Pakistan. This cemented the language movement with its first martyrs and spurring on not just an initiative to bolster Bangla status, but also a political consciousness (today, UNESCO declares February 21 as International Mother Tongue Day). However, even when Pakistan’s 1956 constitution recognised Bengali as a national language alongside Urdu, Rahman (1996, pp. 96) highlights the mere symbolic nature of this concession, commenting that ‘there were complaints from Bengalis that their language was not being treated at par with Urdu […] Currency notes, railway signs etc. were not in Bengali […] The state media gave less time to it than to Urdu.’


The major party of East Pakistan, Awami League, launched its Six-Point Movement in 1966, emphasising the creation of linguistic nationalism amongst Bengalis – leading to a victory in the elections of 1970 with all but two seats in East Bengal gained (Mohsin, 2003, pp. 90). Tensions intensified to a civil war lasting 9 months, ending with the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent state in 1971.


The language-in-education policy: National Educational Policy 2010

The post-Pakistani rule era of Bangladesh brought along a wave of Bengali cultural ideals and nationalism, championing the unity of ‘the Bengalis’ – although tellingly not ‘the Bangladeshis’ (non-Bangla speaking peoples) as will be alluded to later. The core purpose of language planning in Bangladesh appears to find roots from explicit recommendations from the Government of Bangladesh (1972, p. 5), asserting that ‘the state shall adopt measures to conserve the cultural traditions and heritage of the people, and so to foster and improve the national language, literature and the arts […] and to participate in the enrichment of the national culture.’ As such, Bangla enjoys a status of being the national and major official language in the country, as well as being the dominant medium of schooling.


A language-in-education policy is a ‘mechanism’ of general language policy, a form of ‘imposition and manipulation of language policy as it is used by those in authority to turn ideology into practice through formal education’ (Shohamy, 2006, pp. 76). This is especially true of Bangladeshi language-in-education policy, where the root focus of recommendations is to reinforce the status of Bangla across all parts of Bangladesh. Language-in-education policy is concerned with influencing the curriculum design, teaching methodologies, materials, teacher selection and training, and assessment (Baldauf and Ingram, 2001).


An effective theoretical model in which language-in-education policy can be analysed is Kaplan and Baldauf’s framework (2003), designed after carrying out extensive research of language-in-education polities and planning in the Pacific Basin. The framework consists of the following policy planning elements: access policy, personnel policy, curriculum policy, methods and materials policy, resourcing policy, community policy and evaluation policy.


According to Kaplan and Baldauf Jr (2003, pp. 202), access policy provides a statement of who must study what languages (pp. 217) and personnel policy examines human resources for teacher selection (pp. 218). Hamid (2010, pp. 292) explains methods and materials policy as language teaching approaches used and the materials used for this purpose, and resourcing policy as the allocation of financial resources and infrastructure for organising teaching and learning activities at schools.


Before the current Language Education Policy (2010), similar reports of recommendations and documentation were made in 1975 (by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman) and six subsequent reports. However, the preface and foreword stress how none of these policies have been implemented at all (pp. 4). A cursory overview of the document highlights how the policies are designed to maximise the economic development of Bangladesh, as well as using education as a means to increase the subsequent skilled workforce – including the introduction of a ‘digital Bangladesh’. Secondly, the document frequently makes reference to aspirations to eradicate illiteracy amongst all segments of the population as a result of maximising enrolment in schools. These aims are underpinned by an ethos of instilling a sense of Bengali nationalism and pride through an educated nation.


Primary schools


The current policy recommendations for primary schooling attempts to uphold the Constitutional responsibility of the state – ‘access of all sections of children to primary education irrespective of ethnicity, socio-economic conditions, physical or mental challenges and geographical differences’ (pp. 11). As many children are left with little choice but to work straight after completing primary school, the policy also mentions plans to introduce pre-vocational courses at the end of the primary school system.


Currently, the duration of school runs up from Class I to Class V, but from 2011-2012, the policy aims to carry out an extension of primary schooling to include Classes VI, VII and VIII – these plans have a tentative year of complete implementation across all schools by 2018, as well as curriculum material for this expansion (pp. 13). Assessment takes place continuously in Classes I and II, with quarterly exams taking place on Class III onwards (pp. 16). The completion of Class VIII introduces a new examination called Junior School Certificate Examination.


Compulsory subjects offered at primary level are Bangla, English, Moral Science, Bangladesh Studies, Mathematics, Social Environment and Natural Environment. All of these subjects are conducted in Bangla, as the policy document differentiates between ‘normal’ Bangla medium schools and ‘English medium schools’ (as shown in the policy section named ‘integration of different streams’. In terms of the streams of education offered in Bangladesh, schooling is divided into three institutionalised sources: state schools, madrassas (Islamic schools of study) and English medium schools (such as those following the British education system and cadet colleges).


Secondary schools


The main objectives of secondary education amongst others is to ‘develop a learner with competencies so that s/he can compete in the job market, especially in the economic sector of the country’ (pp. 21), generally aligned with the theme of socioeconomic benefits of education. As well as this, the policy also aims to design, continue and implement a uniform curriculum and syllabus for the selected subjects, irrespective of streams. From this point on, the medium of instruction in secondary schooling is Bangla.


Secondary schooling stipulates a range of compulsory subjects offered such as Bangla, English, Bangladesh Studies, General Mathematics and Information Technology. Mirroring plans to unify streams of education, all assessments and examinations given at the end of these subjects will feature the distribution of identical question papers. An interesting position is taken towards the course content, curriculum, examination and assessment of the ‘O’ level (GCSE equivalent) and ‘A’ level – such systems are treated as special (pp. 23) but will have to incorporate Bangla and Bangladesh Studies to supplement the general streamlining of education.


Because the duration of primary school is now extended to 8 years, the structure of secondary school are now Classes IX to XII. As such, there are plans for infrastructure, teachers and staff to be widely increased and expanded to accommodate the anticipated increase in students across the nation – by 2018, the policy expects a student-teacher ratio of 1:30 (pp. 22). Stipends are offered to those who excel in exams, which take place at completion of Class X (Secondary Examination) and Class XII (Higher Secondary Examination).


While this essay focuses upon primary and secondary school education, there are also sections containing recommendations and guidelines for other fields of education, such as adult education, vocational, madrassa, higher education, specific subjects such as engineering, business, law, nursing, agriculture and physical education.


Overall, whilst the Education Policy looks to be the most complete iteration of the government’s plans to administer education for the population, there are challenges faced before it could be regarded as an effective policy. As the next section will outline, there are issues in the actual practice and implementation of these policies which affect a certain minority of the population, as well as dilemmas faced with regards to global English.


Issues with indigenous minorities


The national language, Bangla, is spoken by 98% of the population, whilst the remaining 2% constitute a group of about 45 indigenous ethno-linguistic minorities, speaking over 30 different languages (from 4 different language families: Austro-Asiatic, Dravidian, Indo-European and Sino-Tibetan) amongst themselves in a population of up to 2 million (Rahman, 2010). An umbrella term used to refer to the indigenous people is ‘Adivasi’ or ‘Adibashi’ (Sarker and Davey, 2009) The languages spoken by these minorities range from Khasi, Koch, Mundari, Santali, Kurux, Chak and so on. In terms of religious demographics, indigenous people follow a range of faiths such as Hinduism, Christianity, Buddhism, Islam and animism. They live mostly in remote areas, scattered across territories such as the Chittagong Hill Tracts, North Bengal, Greater Mymensingh, Gazipur and Greater Sylhet.


Indigenous groups also contributed to the civil war against West Pakistan to help the Bengali people in their struggle for self-governance. However, unlike the vast majority of Bengali rebels who have been enshrined in the history of Bangladeshi nationalism, the Adibashi are largely ignored, as in other walks of life. Land ownership disputes, as well as general difficulties in becoming integrated into society are just part of the problem that the indigenous face in Bangladesh. Given how the Bengalis fought for self-governance based on language-based oppression from the Pakistani state, today it is ironic that the very same administration has reciprocated that oppression upon the indigenous masses.


Up until now, language policy in Bangladesh largely ignored these minority groups, relegating them to almost an ‘untouchable’ status in society. The current Education Policy (2010) stipulates the following policy and pledges (‘children in ethnic group’) for indigenous minorities in education in primary school (with similar measures pertaining to secondary schooling):


‘18. Measures will be taken to ensure the availability of teachers from ethnic groups and to prepare texts in their own languages so that ethnic children can learn their own indigenous languages. In these initiatives, especially in preparing textbooks, the inclusion of respective indigenous communities will be ignored.
19. Special assistance will be provided to the marginalised indigenous children.’ (pp. 15)


Point 23 of the aims and objectives of the Education Policy (2010, pp. 10) also mentions plans ‘to promote and develop the languages and cultures of the indigenous and small ethnic groups.’


While plans for mother tongue education in Bangladesh for ethnic minorities are encouraging, the government faces a multitude of challenges before they can fully realise the potential of this recommendation – there are risks of language endangerment if these languages are not protected. There are tangible effects experienced by some of the indigenous groups despite optimistic promises of the Policy to ensure maximum enrolment of children. Sarker and Davey (2009) surveyed indigenous minorities in north-western Bangladesh in 2004, aiming to identify factors surrounding dropout rates of primary level children in the Rajshahi Division. Their results showed that only 22% of children in this region complete primary education, with 18% attending school but then dropping out, revealing a worrying trend of children not even attaining basic literacy skills. As poverty is an issue surrounding the country, it would not be surprising to see positive effects brought out of tangible, effective measures to give financial incentives (reducing or eliminating fees) to children studying at school, especially those from the poorest regions.


Census discrepancies from the 1991 and 2001 census already highlight issues in identifying ethnic minorities within the country, with some groups being named twice while others being completely omitted (Rahman, 2010, pp. 348) – if there is little knowledge about their demographics, it would make a difficult situation even worse in terms of language recognition and preservation. Given that almost 30 different languages are spoken by the ethnic minorities, this increases the difficulty of the task of selecting and standardising particular languages as the medium of instruction. Rahman (2010, pp. 355) suggests the usage of a national database system which stringently records accurate and consistent data on groups, languages and cultures. But with a centralised system of managing education in Bangladesh, budgetary and funding allocations of these regions remain problematic – a tangible level of local control is needed as financial aid would be a large stride in progress to alleviate such problems.


As well as this, what languages are available to standardise are met with debates as to which language and script should be selected for use of teaching in schools. Many of the languages are oral only, lacking orthographies of their own. Scripts used by indigenous languages use writing systems of Bengali, Devanagari or Latin. Some indigenous groups are divided over which script to use in the domain of education and media, with some groups such as the Sadri-speaking Oraons wanting to use Bangla as the script for their language due to familiarity, the Tripuras who are unsure over whether to use Latin or Bangla or even other groups who would might promote the Latin script because it may help their children to learn English quickly. A consensus between the indigenous groups must be reached before proceeding to select and standardise languages. Effective discussions between group members would also help encourage their participation to assist in creating textbooks in their languages, and priority should be given to preserve those languages with few speakers and no orthographies. NGOs such as UNESCO and ASHRAI have been instrumental in designing a mother tongue based education system for the Oraon community for teaching Sadri (Malone, 2007).


Despite some encouraging signs with regards to addressing some of the issues surrounding the neglect of indigenous minorities in Bangladesh, the current National Education Policy should be amended to address the above concerns to see wider positive effects amongst those regions.


The policy in light of global English


As a player in the globalised market, Bangladesh has key issues to address, namely its rising levels of poverty, unemployment and having one of the lowest GDP per capita in the world. With this in mind, there is clearly a desire to equip the citizens of Bangladesh with educational rigour to bring to the forefront a rising workforce to contribute to the local economy. Making English (previously the colonial language during Pakistani rule before being ousted as the official language in 1971 – now a global language whether it is positively received or not) a compulsory subject in primary and secondary education is part of this, but this is also met with challenges with regards to the quality and manner in which it is disseminated.


Separate from the public government schools, private schools which use primarily English medium of instruction are protected by the state in their existence and survival. As these institutions are led by overseas policy primarily from the UK or US, they are exempt from the challenges faced in English language teaching.


However, for state schools, there are serious concerns with regards to the quality of teacher training in Bangladesh, with in extension affects the level of English subject teaching, The current policy of making English available as ‘early as possible’ (in response to a discourse of globalisation) has not taken into account the general capacity of ill-equipped English teachers – there are 344,789 primary English teachers for 16.2 million students, and 60,000 in secondary for 7.4 million students (Hamid, 2010, pp. 293).


There are general quality and methodology issues with the 1 year C-in-Ed teacher training qualification, with Quddus (2009) explaining that many teachers consider the training system to be the biggest obstacle to their professionalism. Even worse, enrolment onto these programmes often takes years after application, with resultant situations such as CAMPE (2006) statistics (of a representative 436 primary teachers in 2005) showing that only 66% of primary teachers receive the C-in-Ed – of the remaining 34%, only 7% had Education degrees. This raises questions of the level of English proficiency from teachers themselves, which impact negatively upon student achievement. A similar situation is also found for secondary English teachers, with infrastructural inadequacies leading to the same enrolment delays – as of 2006, only 48.6% of secondary school teachers are officially trained (Hamid, 2010, pp. 297).


Because of this, there have been many donor-funded NGOs who have attempted a short-term solution to this problem by supplementing the current teacher training with ELT for teachers, such as the DfID funded English in Action project, but with other project-based training initiatives also concurrently running throughout Bangladesh, the benefits are only limited, revealing many weaknesses to the state’s dedication to transforming their policies to tangible action. Also, there should be a critical approach to the idea of using English for nation-building purposes, founded on a living developing Bangla identity (Imam, 2005, pp. 483). Given that the very identity of Bangladesh is primarily formed around its state language, there should be questions asked around the necessity of English as a survival tool in the global arena, rather than learning perceived colonial values associated with it. This way, both English and Bangla could co-exist, rather than vying for power at the expense of the other.




It is clear from the issues outlined above that there is still much work to be done in order for Bangladeshi language-in-education policy to be effective. From the advent of fighting for self-governance from the backdrop of tunnel-vision Pakistani language policy, the state of Bangladesh’s language policies have been primarily focused around building the young nation around a Bangla-speaking Bengali nationalist identity. This has brought contemporary issues such as the status of indigenous minorities, who, despite a rejuvenated National Education Policy in 2010, still face severe hardship in achieving tangible mother tongue-based education. The era of globalism has also brought to the government a need to incorporate the benefits of global English to their education system despite infrastructural and resourcing issues making such an ideal a difficult task to fulfil. Addressing these issues would be key to seeing the major tenets of the Education Policy being realised into nation-building. (3997)



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