As Published today in Forum magazine: “Education in Transition: English based learning in Bangladesh today”

I wrote this for Forum magazine, part of the Daily Star. It was published just today. It is pasted below. It is basically a piece written about the English education and its usage in the Bangladeshi society and the differences that it has brought to the sector, academically and socially. Read for more:

Education in Transition:
English based learning in Bangladesh today

By Olinda Hassan

OLINDA HASSAN examines the social divide between Bangla and English-medium students.

The growing availability of English medium education in Bangladesh attests to the increasing demand for the global language, both domestically and internationally. Even traditional, national-curriculum following Bangla medium schools, such as Viqarunnisa Noon School or St. Josephs have established “English medium” sections. These sections teach the basic national curriculum as translated in English, and usually have only one Bangla class, for at most 45 minutes per day. In the O’level exams in English medium schools, the Bangla section is easily passable, as discussed by several alums of such schools for this article. “Since Bangla is taught as a second language, the section is fairly easy, and almost everyone will score an A,” explained a graduate from Sunbeams. This trend, along with the rise in British-curriculum English medium schools in the country, attests to the language’s continued prestige in the region.

The rise in the usage of English, beyond schools and corporations, testifies to the effect of globalisation in Bangladesh. As the country promotes foreign investors, for example, the importance of having proficient English becomes crucial, for everyone. Since the mid-20th century, or when independent nations started forming from colonialism, English-based educational institutions started to flourish in order to speed up the process of development; in Bangladesh, the rise in such schools was concurrent with the liberalisation of the market and flowing international aid. In Bangladesh and around the world today, governments are increasingly making English classes compulsory at younger ages, though often without providing the necessary funding for training teachers and for teaching material.

The rise in English has also created a cultural change, especially in urban areas; complete fluency of the language has become a new medium for defining social hierarchies at a very early age. English has become the tool to eliminate people from inner circles; at schools, the work place, to neighborhoods, etc. The extensive trust in the power of English is causing many to hold a negative image of their own language. It has also raised another interesting question — what will happen to the Bangla language itself as more parents and children are picking English as the mode for life instruction? From being under British to Pakistani rule, Bangladesh has gone through a vastly emotional language movement, fighting for its right to use Bangla. Today, such a history is compounded with English becoming the preferred language of elitism, intellect, as well as the venue for the nation’s development.

Understanding perceptions: English medium and Bangla medium students
“We don’t really talk to them in the Bangla medium section, they are not like us,” said one student in Class 8 who studies at the English medium section at Rajuk Uttara Model College (RUMC). He is wearing green, the colour that distinguishes him from the Bangla medium students who wear blue at RUMC. While he is sharing the same school grounds as the hundreds of others in Bangla medium, it is notable that the two sections often do not mix socially. If one looks out at the playing field, the greens and blues can often be seen in dividing clusters during breaks. Yet the two sections have combined to make RUMC stand at the first place in rankings yet again, scoring at the top in the recent national SSC exams.

The national-curriculum following schools also have vastly differing tuition fees within the institution; the Bangla medium section is usually cheaper. Since this information is widely known, in addition to the differences in uniform, location of classrooms, teachers, etc., it is easy to separate and discriminate. English medium schooling has always been a privilege for the wealthy minority, engrained in the country’s sociological history. The demand for English medium school for the children of wealthy families and nouveau riche led to the speedy creation of these schools in the private sector.

Furthermore, it can be observed that those who have studied under English medium education have higher chances of applying to and attending universities abroad. This does not indicate that the Bangla medium students are any less interested, however, their chances decrease and they are also often discouraged from going abroad, due to their education’s primary mode of language. In a society where a foreign degree (often no matter what type of university, known or not, vocational or unranked) gives an individual and their family a powerful social advantage, one can understand why the preference for English medium education has increased.

In addition, the expanding private universities in the country that sometimes replace going abroad for higher studies are also like an extension of English-medium education, and therefore, “very elitist in their admission”, with their language entrance exams ten folds more expensive than public institutions, as discussed by Rahel Banu and Roland Sussex in “English in Bangladesh after Independence: Dynamics of Policy and Practice”. They further explained how elitism in education is expressed “not only in terms of the fees paid, but also in terms of the overall exclusiveness of the environment, not the least of which is the use of English in the classroom and whenever possible, outside the classroom” (Banu and Sussex, 131).

“The Bangla medium girls…they are just not like us, they can’t speak English well, so there is not much to talk about,” said Nishat in Bangla, one recent graduate of Viqarunnisa Noon School when asked if she had friends from the “other section”, as they termed it. When asked to explain what differences she saw, she shrugged and said, “They are just different, we don’t share the same culture, you know?”

However, it is not that the two sections may differ significantly in their lifestyle. They may be neighbours, their parents could be colleagues. The students from the two mediums will often listen to the same music, watch the same movies and television shows, recognise the same fashion, enjoy alike local hangouts, and may even come from analogous economic and family backgrounds. They will often identify with similar religious beliefs, cultural norms and political viewpoints. However, receiving an English-based education can crush these existing similarities between students of the same school, the same neighbourhood and the same city.

There are many attitudes associated with defining the power of language. Using a specific language, such as English in Bangladesh can determine what one thinks the language can provide for him or her, and likewise, what others can think of the individual when the language is used. English, the language that has been associated with power and prestige (due to its legacy from colonialism) has become the suitable vocabulary in society. Whereas in India English has become the primary language of communication and politics and thus, people have become comfortable with its usage, this has now become the case concentrated only among Bangladeshi elites. Observing how school and college children interact with each other based on the language of education proves the capacity and influence of English in Bangladeshi society.

Today’s generation and the emergence of “Banglish” 
English has diffused deeply in the country, resulting in the use of several varieties of the language in Bangladesh. “Banglish”, as popularly termed today, is the use of English diction inserted randomly in the Bangla dialogue. This can make a conversation as much as 30% to 40% in English. The use of Banglish is especially popular in media today, such as in television and private radio stations such as Radio Foorti. Hosts of public events and concerts are often specifically asked to speak Banglish. The development of Banglish is connected with historical and social factors, having its own function, context and usage. Banglish’s popularity has likewise raised questions concerning identity and its realistic usage in a non-native English surrounding.

Rifaiyat Mahbub, an alum of Sunbeams in Uttara explained how learning both Bangla and English is reducing the authenticity of each of those languages today. Further, the improper development of English education itself has complicated this problem. “Our English isn’t good, but then we are focusing on learning English and so, our Bangla is not so great either. So, we talk in a mix where we use both English and Bangla words together, like Spanglish,” she explained. “Many don’t like this in our society, causing a disconnect, especially because of the politics of Bangladesh that is engrained in our everyday lives,” Mahbub added.

The prevalence of Banglish is important because language is deeply rooted in culture, and any cultural movements tend to bring broad changes to a community. There is an openly known notion that Banglish is creating a type of modernisation (or, Westernisation as is popularly paralleled in Bangladesh) that can be seen as threatening. Gerry Abbott from the University of Manchester in “Development, education, and English language teaching” (1990) explains how the need to develop through teaching a non-native language such as English “overshadows an arguably more basic need to transmit indigenous inherited cultures” and thus, because “development has been interpreted as ‘becoming more like the West’, western aid donors and cultural agencies [that work to promote English] have been accused of cultural imperialism” (Abbott, 174). The wide usage of Banglish or the purposeful usage of American or British-accented English by today’s generation (who may have never even lived abroad) can often be seen by others as limiting and threatening. However, today’s generation can argue that such usage is their homage to trying to get the country to develop and modernise. Languages, native and Western, can even have the capability of excavating generation gaps.

Conclusion
In 2010, the General Administration of Press and Publication in China banned the use of English in Chinese media such as books, papers and on the web, explaining that the ever increasing usage of English and half-English phrases are damaging the “purity “of the Chinese language and upsetting the nation’s “harmonious and healthy cultural environment”. It must be noted that the Chinese government also lowered the age for compulsory English from 11 to nine in 2001 and English teaching has emerged as a booming private business. Even in Bangladesh, the demand for English correlated with personal advancement and job placement has created a profitable market for coaching centres that exist in every turn.

In Asia, the use of English is astounding; India houses one of the largest English-using populations in the world. English literature is increasingly becoming recognised as part of education, as well as policy making in many nations in the region. The escalating use of English, as well as the purposeful build up of educational institutions promising English, along with the language’s firm grip on defining social elites in Bangladesh certainly asserts the language’s overwhelming power.

The authority of language goes beyond its linguistics; its place in history, sociology of the population, politics and economics must be considered. In Bangladesh, English is also connected with social hierarchies and power, going beyond just a linguistic divide. The language can be used to persuade entities, used as a code to get things and suppress and or elevate groups. It entitles some to things that others can never have. English has come to represent modernisation and development, whether that is right or wrong in Bangladesh, and native children learn this as soon as their first day in school.

Olinda Hassan studied Political Science at Wellesley College, USA, and is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Bangladesh, teaching English at RUMC.

Viqarunnisa Noon School and College “in Crisis”

Bangla teacher Porimol Joydhor admitted to sexually assaulting the class-X female student of Viqarunnisa Noon School and College’s Bashundhara branch on Sunday. He was arrested earlier in the month from Keraniganj after the girl’s father filed a case accusing of repeated rape at his coaching center. What is particularly disturbing is the delayed action by the principals of the school’s main branch as well as the Bonshundhara branch after the news came about. The girl’s father has also filed cases against the two principals, Hosne Ara and Lutfar Rahman, for allegedly “backing Parimal, destroying evidence and threatening the family after filing the case“.

As for details of the rape, the teacher who privately tutored the girl (among others) had taken her to a room, tied her hands and placed her cloth in her mouth to keep her quiet, and raped her on May 28th, in the morning.  He also proceeded to photograph her from his cell phone, threatening to release the pictures online and kill her if she had said anything.

This incident has involved multiple issues- the principal’s lack of immediate action being the most concerning. While sides will argue as to what exactly happened, the lack of a clear picture attests to the fact that the victim of this entire incident was not given fair attention. Students from VNSC and others protested as a result, skipping classes to do so in the main campus. It is especially disappointing, given that it is one of the  premier educational institutions in the country. Given that it is single-sex institution and thus, is supposed to educate and promote women’s leadership, the fact that crimes against the female body can take place, and not be properly addressed by the very female leaders who run the school (and then made political) is absurd.

The girl of this subject must be applauded for speaking up, when many others do not, in fear of social adversities. Because most rape victims never tell, even to their closes family and friends, there are no realistic estimates of how frequently it takes place among youth and education. As for VNSC, what this entails for their social environment must be taken seriously, independent of politics. Perhaps one way would be to actually have teachers teach in their classrooms, eliminating the need for the profitable and necessary coaching centers. Teachers cannot have so much authority, believing that they can do whatever they want to in the classroom and beyond with their behavior. Students will also need to be empowered, and know that their institution is there for their protection and will support them in any way that they are supposed to- a notion in a threat today.

Rajuk Uttara Model School Tops Again in SSC Exam Scores.

I am proud to say that Rajuk Uttara Model School has topped the list again in having the highest number of students passing and scoring high in the SSC (Secondary School Certificate) exam this year. As a result, Rajuk has been ranked the best school by the Dhaka Education Board.

RUMS on Thursday, May 12 2011 after 12 pm was a sea of students and parents in the courtyard, cheering and showing the victory signs. There were reporters and press vans from various channels in the city present to record the scene. Among the crowd can be seen teachers who eagerly entered the crowd. Given how rigorous the exams can be, and the time commitment issued to the students (those who took the exams were given days off from school to prepare), this news indeed was one for celebration. About 1.3 million students in Bangladesh took the exam this year that began in February.

I remember right before the students went on vacation to study for the exams, they held a pre-celebration in the auditorium with music, prize giving to teachers, cake cutting, and food (from their local favorite, Best Fried Chicken). I had just started at Rajuk and many of these students did not know me. While most Rajuk students greet me with great enthusiasm and curiosity, these 10th graders’ reaction was a bit more somber- they were clearly distracted about the examination and the hours of rigorous study that was about to fall upon them.

Not that many were surprised at the passing rate and Rajuk placing at the top again. The celebration on Thursday was already in the air well before results were to be announced. Two of my students who were about to take the exam next year came to my room and told me all about how crazy the scene would be yesterday at noon, despite knowing if everyone had passed or not. The supreme confidence exerted my students at Rajuk is perhaps one to admire.

More students pass the SSC exam this year. 

Exam Time at Rajuk Uttara Model School

There are about four hundred students seated to the take the HSC exam, one of the national exams for 12th grades in the central hall on the bottom floor of the school. The hall, usually home to cultural events for students has been transformed into a room of intimidation: rows of wooden chairs and tables, and desks in intervals for proctors and board members to sit and observe late teenagers sweat their way through a live or die exam. None them look up when I enter the room to speak to one of the teachers, their faces showing the strains of studying for months being finally poured out.

The HSC result will determine the students’ ability to succeed in the sense that if they do not do well, their hopes of getting into a national university are slim to none. Getting entrance into the prestigious public institutions such as Dhaka University, Dhaka Medical College, or Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology will all be essentially determined by the HSC exam. Likewise, the fate of the school rests on its students’ scores as well. The more perfect scores, the better the school will be ranked among all. In a country there hierarchy is engrained in the everyday social construct, this becomes particularly important. Rajuk has been ranked at the top as an educational institution based on these results. When I tell someone from Bangladesh that I work at RUMS, they usually respond with raised eyes and by telling me that I work at the best schools in the country.

The exam culture of schools that follow the national curriculum consists of intense memorization, attention to detail, and unorthodox organization. Not only do they have to memorize information (often word for word), but they must be presented clearly and neatly. I have seen some of the best English handwritings at Rajuk, ever. When I write on the board in class I am sometimes embarrassed as my writing (which I have always considered to be pretty good) looks illegible compared to kids ten yours younger than me. In fact in some classes I have to warn before hand that my handwriting may not be clear (to which I get amused smirks and laughs).

RUMS students from all grade levels have also had exams over the last four weeks. These exams included midterms, papers, and lesson exams. I eagerly took about fifty of these English exams with me home to grade. My most important conclusion: I have a new appreciation for all the teachers I have ever had for what they had to go through. I finally understand why it took them so long to turn back midterms and finals. Grading takes a type of effort that I have decided that I do not enjoy- attention to detail, reading sometimes excruciatingly boring paragraphs, trying not cringe at grammar mistakes, and checking final scores, making sure there are no rooms for students to appeal decisions.

Further, there is an indirect grading deflation policy at RUMS- no one is allowed to have full marks. This unwritten policy can be observed in many Bangladeshi schools, especially the competitive selections. For example, in the essay section of the exam, while it says that it is out of ten points, the highest they can get is a seven (which is when it is exceptional). The student may or may not know this. Thus, getting a score in the range of 70s is considered to be good- a score that translates to a ‘C’ in most schools in the United States. You do not ever give full marks- an important rule with ethical bindings for me. So no matter how much these students study and write amazing answers to questions (which were several in this sample case), they will never be rewarded what they probably deserve.

It is hard to compare these systems with those in the West as the implications of results are so varied. Whereas in the United Stats many factors count towards college entrance, in Bangladesh the exam results are exclusive in that category. And yet Bangladeshi students from these national schools who pursue their undergraduates in the United States have an unusually high rate of success in their SATs. Usually, financial considerations are the reasons for declining entrance to American colleges rather than not getting an acceptance. Their SAT scores tend to make up for the lack of sufficient extra curricular activities, for example, which is still an up and coming component in Bangladeshi schools.

Lynn Sherr’s Commencement Speech/ Wellesley College/ May 28, 2010

Kim – President Bottomly – very distinguished faculty, trustees, staff, sister alums, loving parents and grandparents and families and all the friends who made all of this possible today, and above all, beautiful, bubbly members of the Royal Purple class of 2010. Congratulations! I’ve even written my speech on purple paper today.

Thank you for inviting me to your party. Thank you for letting me pretend I’m still here. And really, above all, thank you for showing me what the Scream Tunnel sounds like!

I celebrate your accomplishments and I share every tingle of excitement. This day is beyond special in your lives, and I am honored to help welcome you out into the wide, wide world. Regrettably, I do not stand here to guarantee you a job; I can, however, guarantee lunch. Never underestimate lunch.

I also stand here as living, breathing proof that Wellesley does indeed open the doors to the planet. Most of those doors were, in fact, barred to women when I graduated from Wellesley in 1963 – another century, another era, even another color. I was a mellow yellow girl. Golden, if you pushed. Which my generation had to do. As women – or “girls,” they called us – we were not invited to participate in the working world except at the lowest levels. But thanks to the knowledge we gained and the courage we inhaled on this campus, we figured it out. We smashed the barriers so that you – every one of you – can now walk into any doorway that you want. That’s the way it works. Pay it forward, when you’re ready to do the same. Continue reading “Lynn Sherr’s Commencement Speech/ Wellesley College/ May 28, 2010”