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 in February 21st of 1952. Bangladeshis feel proud to think 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, 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 especially strong 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 at the Shaheed Minar (martyrs’ monument). People buy books, talk about the importance of 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 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 life 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 very rich language in terms of its history, literature, and expression, as a language, it has not successfully exhibited its influence. It has even difficult time to establish itself as a top-end practical language in Bangladesh! People caught between the dilemmas of loving 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 in a constant struggle to establish itself in Bangladesh.

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

Higher Education

Even now 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 the user statistics of these books 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 sort of Bangla version or translation of their websites. A handful of public universities post notices in Bangla, private universities do not post anything in Bangla language at all. More than 90% of these university students are Bangladeshi. Another example, Bangladeshi embassy and consulate websites – they are all in English (only one has 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 Bijoy keyboard, Munir keyboard, Jatiaya keyboard, Rupali keyboard, Prophat keyboard, and so on. And then there is the Avro phonetic keyboard. If you can type in one keyboard, you may have tough time in another keyboard. Consistency is critical for a language to go to a destination. How hard is it to adopt an universal input method for 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 done due to the complexity of Bangla spelling rules, but the issue of simplification is still hotly debated among the language experts.

Although Romanization of Bangla alphabet is difficult, Roman phonetic alphabets are used to 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 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 is not many good books to learn Bangla. Some writers have compiled language manuals to teach their children or spouses Bangla. Some books are to teach Sylheti Bangla dialect as it has more demand than standard Bangla in the UK. Many books to learn Bangla/phrasebook have been written by non-Bangladeshi authors – 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, and so on. Scarcity of good basic Bangla books are felt by people who are interested in learning the language.

Usefulness of Bangla

In terms of number of native speakers, Bangla is the 7th in the world, but according to Power Language Index, which weighs 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.
Strong connection with a network of hub languages is the best way for a language to become influential.

Bangla has very poor global language network connection 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 in other languages. Out of his almost 200 books, a handful is known to other languages.


LanguageCentralityTranslations FromTranslations 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 but still 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, Bangla language remains popular among the Bangladeshi people because of its defining historical role in the independence of Bangladesh. 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 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 is a celebration of 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 the time 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 to see a language of many millions not so strong,  not capable of being one of the best in the world 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, a vision of the future. 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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