Why don’t more people learn Bengali?

Bengali - Bangla learning resourcesThis picture might lead to you believe otherwise, but English-speaking learners of Bengali are not blessed with an over abundance of resources.

The web has, to some extent, changed that. Blogs like this one and My Bangla Diary, and websites like So You Want To Learn A Language? make it easier, if you have the time, to find information and help with the language.

But I was intrigued today to come across an online discussion on the How To Learn Any Language forum – and then on the Mainly Magyar blog – about why more people don’t learn Bengali.

The wider question is how do those English speakers that learn a language after they leave school choose their subject.

Until then the role of the education system, and the weight of history, is more important. I chose to learn French and German in school, and then Italian in college, but the choice was around whether I would or would not learn the languages on offer, it wasn’t a choice between French and Bengali, German and Hindi or Italian and Mandarin.

After that there are a number of factors, most or all of which were mentioned on How To learn Any Language:

• Proximity – from the UK I’m more likely to visit France than India

• Economics – either directly, e.g. will I do business in India, if I do will I need an Indian language for this and if that’s the case will it be Hindi – the most spoken language in India, or Bengali (which is third) or will I stick with English (which is now second), or culturally, the dominance of Bollywood films and music is an effective way of spreading the language, both inside and outside India

• Culture – Bengali icons have their fans, starting with poet, author and playwright Rabindranath Tagore (who is the only Asian to win the Nobel prize for literature and was championed by W.E. Yeats) moving to film director Satyajit Ray (Martin Scorsese’s a fan) and ending with Ravi Shankar (George Harrison of The Beatles of course) but culturally Bengali has not really resonated with a Western audience for some time

But this isn’t meant to be a study of a language in terminal decline, though Bengali is I think at a curious juncture at the moment, slowly losing ground in India while east of the border they campaign for UN recognition.

And, unsurprisingly, I think language learning choices are much more personal than economics, more random than location and culture is something that only really comes into play after you begin learning a language.

6 responses to “Why don’t more people learn Bengali?

  1. I know there are connoisseurs of languages, who learn just for the sake of learning. For me, language is just a means of communication and I find it hard to learn unless I am forced to by circumstances. When I married a Bengali (Indian, not Bangladeshi) 30 years back, I only set out to learn Bengali as a way to converse with my mother-in-law who could speak Hindi or English only poorly. My conversations with my husband are now a nice mélange of English and Bengali but I reckon that had it not been for my m-i-l, I might never have learnt Bengali! I bet there are many people like me. So I’ll change your question to ‘Why aren’t more people forced to learn Bengali for personal or business reasons’ – and the answer is evident, as you have pointed out. If one can get by happily in English, why bother?

  2. Great post!
    I think you hit the nail on the head with India and Bangladesh.
    Bangladesh being a poor country and with most learning languages for economic reasons (and modern day missionaries, aid workers and capitalists going for brief periods of not more than 2 years rather than for life) there is not the incentive for people to learn despite the rich literature Bengali has.

  3. Interesting topic!! I agree with some of your points.Mainly people learn when they have a personal reason to learn but if they are in a business or attached to an NGO then they need to travel different cities in India and so then they should Learn Hindi.But if they are going to work in Bangladesh or West Bengal then they should go for Bengali.
    Most of my Bengali Learning Students are learning because of their spouse or close friends or to impress their mother-in-laws🙂

    I have just started a Bengali Podcast this year.I will be glad if you include me as a Bengali Learning resource at your site. My “Bengali Posdcasts” available @ http://bengalipodcasts.talkingbees.com

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