Ekushey: Between language and culture

Bangladeshis, home and abroad, celebrate Ekushey February to remember Bangla Language Movement and to honor those who sacrificed their lives to preserve Bangla as their mother language on February 21st of 1952. Bangladeshis feel proud to think of Ekushey February as their very own achievement – an immediate triumph in protecting the rights to read, write, speak, and listen in Bangla. Although the language was the issue, the Bangla language was not at the center of the movement. Ekushey was fundamentally a political action towards self-determination then, and today it is purely a cultural event for Bangladeshi people.

Bangladeshis have integrated and shaped Ekushey as an important part of their cultural identity. This trend is robust among Bangladeshis abroad or Non-Resident Bangladeshis. Today the event is observed as a festival with music, dance, drama, poetry, parade, play, concert, motif, drawing, painting, speech, discussion, book fair, and laying of wreaths of flowers Shaheed Minar (martyrs’ monument). People buy books, talk about the importance of the Bangla language, and try to teach Bangla to their children. There is also a strong initiative to build Shaheed Minars wherever Bangladeshis live in large numbers. Bangladeshis got their Shaheed Minars in London, Tokyo, and Sydney. In New York, New Jersey, and other cities, the drive is ongoing.

Shaheed Minar in London, Sydney and Tokyo
Shaheed Minar in London, Sydney, and Tokyo.

When answering questions about the relationship of Ekushey February with Bangla language, Bangladeshis love to mention that Bangla language is (perhaps) the only language in the world to be known for people sacrificing their lives for the right to speak in mother language; Bangla is the 7th most spoken language in the World in terms of numbers; UNESCO recognized 21st February as International Mother Language Day in recognition of the language movement; Rabindranath Tagore won Nobel Prize in Bangla language; etc. Although Bangla is a vibrant language in its history, literature, and expression, it has not successfully exhibited its influence as a language. It has even a difficult time to establish itself as a top-end practical language in Bangladesh! People caught between the dilemmas of loving the Bangla language and not able to use it further. Unlike the Chinese language in China, the Korean language in Korea, or the Turkish language in Turkey, Bangla language has been struggling to establish itself in Bangladesh.

Language-wise, Bangla has many challenges. Here are a few:

Higher Education

Higher education in Bangla language is quite impossible for medical, engineering, computer, agriculture-related degrees. Doing a Master’s degree in any field of study without English will leave any student with a superficial knowledge and limited understanding of his/her study subject. Since 1956, Bangla Academy – Bangladesh’s national language authority – has published 5,220 Bangla books and periodicals (including reprints and editions) in 76 subjects. Some of these books are textbook quality, but these books’ user statistics at the higher education level are difficult to find. Indeed, the debate between “Bangla is not capable of being the vehicle of higher education” and “there is not enough effort to make Bangla the vehicle for higher education” is eternal.


Besides emotional, there is no political, administrative, educational, intellectual motivation to make Bangla more useful or widespread – not even mere giving some static information. For example, according to Bangladesh University Grant Commission, Bangladesh has 132 universities (37 public, 92 private, and 3 international). All except two universities have some Bangla version or translation of their websites. A handful of public universities post notices in Bangla, and private universities do not post anything in Bangla language. More than 90% of these university students are Bangladeshi. Another example, Bangladeshi embassy and consulate websites – they are all in English (only one has a Bangla version). What does it say about the status of Bangla in Bangladeshi society when simple static online information is posted only in English? How hard is it to make those websites Bangla friendly for Bangla readers?

Typing Tool

Bangla has no unified standard keyboard yet. There are different layouts for the Bijoy keyboard, Munir keyboard, Jatiaya keyboard, Rupali keyboard, Prophat keyboard, etc. And then there is the Avro phonetic keyboard. If you can type in one keyboard, you may have a tough time on another keyboard. Consistency is critical for a language to go to a destination. How hard is it to adopt a universal input method for the Bangla keyboard?

Bangla Keyboards
Various layouts of Bangla keyboards

Bangla Spelling

Bangla language has yet to get solid ground for spelling protocol. The word ‘House’ has no other spelling in English except house, but it can be both spelled as ‘বাড়ি’ (bari) and ‘বাড়ী’ (baree) in Bangla. There are many spelling variations in Bangla, such as বাংলা – বাঙলা (Bangla), অংক – অঙ্ক (Math), এশিয় – এশীয় (Asian), কর্মচারি – কর্মচারী (Employee), কেরাণী – কেরানি (Clerk), জিনিষ – জিনিস (Thing), জানুয়ারী – জানুয়ারি (January), দুতাবাস – দূতাবাস (Embassy), নীচে – নিচে (Down), ফেব্রুয়ারী – ফেব্রুয়ারি (February), বুদ্ধিজীবি – বুদ্ধজীবী (Intellectual), বেশী – বেশি (Much), মিমাংসা – মীমাংসা (Solve), সাক্ষাতকার – সাক্ষাৎকার (Interview), শ্রদ্ধাঞ্জলী – শ্রদ্ধাঞ্জলি (Tribute), সম্বর্ধনা – সংবর্ধনা (Congratulation) and so on. Some spelling mistakes are made due to Bangla spelling rules’ complexity, but simplification is still hotly debated among the language experts.

Although Romanization of the Bangla alphabet is difficult, Roman phonetic alphabets transform Latin scripts into Bangla scripts to write Bangla online and mobile devices today. Because of spelling anomaly, Roman phonetic spelling of Bangla is also widely variable, such as for 21: Ekushe/Ekushey/Akuse/Akushey; for martyr: Shohid/Shaheed/Shahid; for alphabet: Barnamala/Bornomala; for the association: Somiti/Shomity/Shomitee/Shamity; for brother: Bhai/Vai/Bai and so on.

Learn Bangla 101

A quick search for Bangla books on amazon.com will tell you that there are not many good books to learn about Bangla. Some writers have compiled language manuals to teach their children or spouses Bangla. Some books teach Sylheti Bangla dialect as it has more demand than standard Bangla in the UK. Many non-Bangladeshi authors like Mary Schmidt, William Radice, Davidovic Mladen, N. S. R. Ganathe, Droid Cook, Alex Castle, Richard Carlson Jr., Kevin Carlson, Arthur Tafero, Jean-Claude Corbeil, Ariane Archambault, James Sykes, Aruna Kumari have written Bangla phrasebook. The scarcity of good basic Bangla books is felt by people who are interested in learning the language.

Usefulness of Bangla

In terms of the number of native speakers, Bangla is the 7th in the world. Still, according to the Power Language Index, which weighs the influence and usefulness of a language in five factors: Geography (ability to travel), Economy (ability to participate in an economy), Communication (ability to engage in dialogue), Knowledge and media (ability to consume knowledge and media), and Diplomacy (ability to engage in international relations), language-wise Bangla ranks 39th, and country-wise Bangladesh ranks 115th (Full report in PDF). The usefulness of Bangla is still confined within the Bangla speaking population largely to communicate with each other.

Language Network

More connection to network of hub languages is the best way for a language to become influential.
A strong connection with a network of hub languages is the best way for a language to become influential.

Bangla has feeble global language network connections based on bilingual book translations, Tweeters, and multilingual Wikipedia edits. A study by MIT shows, what is already widely known, if you want to get your ideas out, you can reach a lot of people through the English language. But the study also shows how speakers of disparate languages benefit from being indirectly linked through hub languages large and small. Rabindranath Tagore was the first non-European author to win the Nobel Prize for literature, largely for his English Gitanjali. On the other hand, Humayun Ahmed, a popular writer from Bangladesh, wished someone someday will translate his books into other languages. Out of his almost 200 books, a handful is known to other languages.


LanguageCentralityTranslations From Translations ToSpeakers (million)

LanguageCentralityTweetsUsersSpeakers (million)

LanguageCentralityEditsEditorsSpeakers (million)

Ekushey as cultural festival

Many private and public initiatives have been taken to make Bangla a more effective, powerful, useful, and reverential language nationally and internationally. These efforts have shown little progress because of Bangladesh’s low literacy rate, cultural determinism, colonial influence, religious bend, etc. Even with all the challenges and limitations, the Bangla language remains popular among the Bangladeshi people because of its defining historical role in Bangladesh’s independence. Bangla language is an important and integral part of Bangladesh’s secular identity. Bangladeshis, home and abroad, enjoy Ekushey February more of a cultural festival than their linguistic pride. Today Ekushey highlights the history of Bangla literary tradition, cultural antiquity and heritage of all Bengali people, freedom from external unjust treatment, Bangladesh’s struggle towards independence, and finally achieve a country of their own. It celebrates all things culturally Bengali and Bangladeshi – art, book, belief, custom, dance, drama, fashion, festival, folklore, food, gender, kinship, law, marriage, moral, music, novel, poetry, religion, ritual, etc. Ekushey is when Bangladeshi readers buy books; publishers publish books, writers talk to readers, children take part in language competition, the youth feel the pulse of their parents, and so on. People proudly become more aware of their Bangla heritage, tradition, history – it’s a feel-good time, a time for bonding emotionally with all things Bangla.

There is nothing wrong with seeing a language of many millions not so strong,  not capable of being one of the best globally, and not so useful to its users as long the users are happy with the current status. To be one of the most influential languages, a language needs to be backed by effective reform, economic development, scientific and technological activities, online interest, and a future vision. Ekuskey has not transformed Bangla as such a language yet. But at least Ekuskey has given Bangladeshis a festival of their very own to enjoy.

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