Published:  12:34 AM, 05 December 2018 Last Update: 12:37 AM, 05 December 2018

Post-truth and politics of our 'English-ness'

Post-truth and politics of our 'English-ness'

Our rickshaw crosses the Rokeya Hall while sailing along the campus toward Nilkhet. Excited readers who are wondering why Rokeya Hall so loudly features in the first sentence will face disappointment.

We have taken this rickshaw from the 'Hakim Chattor' gate which had to take a U-turn and invariably pass by this historically famed women's hall. And we are into chatting from the word go.

Frankly, neither of us has the age to savor the romanticism of women's hall. My co-passenger Dr. Obaidul Hamid, famed English Language Teaching (ELT) specialist at the School of Education in Queensland University, will brutally testify this.

We are still in the 'Englishness mood' as an aftermath of his lively talk at the Institute of Modern Languages (IML). Obaid's topic was "Beneficiary voices in 'English in Action': Ethics, epistemology and politics" where he eloquently highlighted how all donor-funded English language related projects-especially, a particular English teacher training project-in Bangladesh are actually championed by 'donor voice' instead of the real outcomes.

This donor voice refers to a double-edged strategy which donors apply. The first edge of this strategy contains their propagation of self-proclaimed 'success stories' through their websites while the second edge comprises a chunk of favorable opinions of projects' trainees (the 'beneficiary voices') that is highlighted as authentic aid to those success stories.

Obaid rightly pinpointed that things are overtly subjective in such a strategy, devoid of any research-based proof. In fact, donors aren't waiting for any objective proof. It is as simple as it can be: they would pronounce so and so as 'true', and consequently, so and so must be accepted as 'truth'.

Obaid used the term 'post-truth' to describe the donor voices. Post-truth is an amalgamation of opinions disguised as facts. In other words, it is 'selective truth' or 'improved truth' on their part, given that these are truths that serve their purposes better. Eventually, it is the politics of this post-truth which is responsible for this outlandish scenario of our ELT arena to perpetuate. 

'So, what is the future of our ELT?' I ask him.  'Future is fine, ha ha ha!' Obaid laughs. 'This scenario will keep repeating. The success of one such project will lead to the initiation of the next, in a relatively bigger way.'

'And since the beneficiary voices are there…' 'Exactly,' he snatches away my words, 'beneficiaries are important factors in this whole gamut of politics. They have their voices to echo in louder chorus.''Educational imperialism at its height,' I say. 'But don't we have anything to do?''Yes and no. Depends on how we get access to do something.' Obaid sounds bit sullen.

The Arts Faculty stares at us. We once possessed it, and may be vice versa as well. I try to look back at my time here…what a happy life we used to have then! None of these issues of cultural imperialism, linguistic hegemony, dominance, marginalization etc. could poke us. Nothing bothered us; we used to sail by the tides of whatever came by.

I recall how the CLT (Communicative Language Teaching) issue had started gaining momentum in our country. I was in my Masters. Later when I had gone abroad, a robust British Council project called ELTIP arrived to make CLT overwhelm our English language education.

Since then, it was just CLT everywhere, without any consideration of context, culture and practicality. Our educationists, academics, policymakers rolled out all the red carpets for this CLT imperialism.

As the rickshaw inches toward Nilkhet, our discussion takes a new turn. What has been Obaid's judgment about the status of English here? A foreign language or a second language?

'We know how we are divided on this issue,' smilingly he utters. 'We are a classic case of obscurity where English has this privilege of enjoying both statuses. Academically a second language but socio-culturally a foreign language. To me, this is a meaningless debate. Why not think about turning it into local language?'I like his idea. 'English as a local language? ELL? Sounds great.' 

'Not easy to implement though, he remarks, 'we need to get out of these politics of English first!' 'Do you think we will love to get out of this politics? Beneficiaries everywhere. They won't allow each other to do that...''I now like your idea. It's a mutually agreeable situation here. Everyone needs everyone to sustain and flourish,' Obaid hits the jackpot.

'I wonder for how long… Such a talented generation of applied linguists we have now, yet we can't decide, plan, teach and assess our way!' I hide my sigh. Obaid as well, I feel.    'Not till the beneficiary voices stay,' he utters my feelings, 'after all we all know how realities are constructed through language itself!' 

Our rickshaw comes at Science Laboratory. Obaid will drop down at the Happy Arcade on Dhanmondi Road 3 to meet one of his friends. Meanwhile, we selfiefy ourselves in my smart phone which I, driven by social media spirit, instantly upload on Facebook.

During we halt at the traffic signal, we share our final words for that afternoon. 'Our English from class 1 policy…what's your view on this? I ask him. My stand on this has always been simple: it is an inextricable part of language politics, a carefully maintained imposition of blatant power-coerciveness on our population to perpetuate the 'fear factor' of English.

Predictably, I have few sympathizers on this issue within the ELT fraternity. Much to my delight, Obaid echoes my sentiments. 'Why not save the massive bulk of money, time, manpower, resource, and energy after English in the primary level and let this no-result scenario prevail? Starting English from class five will yield better result!'

'Right!' I say, 'why not educate our mass people through mother tongue, allow them get a solid foundation without any fear of English, and initiate English later systematically?'

Obaid adds, 'We will have much better teachers along with better infrastructure for teaching and learning. If our graduate students can pursue higher studies in Chinese, Korean, and German, learning these difficult languages within just a year, learning English should be a cakewalk for them.'

'The problem is, the beneficiary voices won't allow English to be so easily attainable for our people. It's a weapon of prestige, status, power…mind it!' We both laugh out loud. Laughter of irony? Perhaps. Now that our three-wheeler stops at road no. 3, it's time to say good bye to Obaidul Hamid. Our academic rickshaw ride ends in a feel good note.

'It was wonderful sharing our views on a rickshaw ride,' coincidentally we manage to say together. He waves his hand wearing that ever-happy smile on his face. Much as it may sound childlike, I admire this 'ELT-wala' who encompasses a piece of Bangladeshi-ness in Australia. I continue with my trip to my in-laws' home noticing the 'likes' pouring in under our rickshaw-ride selfie.

The writer is the Coordinator of 'MA in TESOL' Program at BRAC Institute of Languages,
BRAC University

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