I once heard someone say that the language you can argue in is your language. I come from Bangladesh, a small yet vibrant country with a rich history, nestled on the northeast side of India, where Bengali is the official language. 

However, I have lived in Canada from a very young age; thus, I never had to translate my mother tongue to English or deal with words getting ‘lost in translation,’ because at no point in my life was Bengali the dominant way I expressed myself. Growing up on the diverse and bustling streets of Toronto, English naturally became the language in which I could best think, express, and argue. Communicating in Bengali became an act of translating my mother tongue from English. This very fact has shrouded me with much guilt, and to some degree, cultural estrangement. I was left wondering whether Bengali was even my language, when my loved ones can not only argue in Bengali, but also risked their lives to do so. 

The British Empire directly ruled the Indian subcontinent from 1858 until 1947, and afterward, it partitioned the area into Pakistan and India — a process which resulted in massive upheaval of the region’s diverse ethnic groups and violence along religious lines. Before its independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh — formerly East Pakistan — had an ethnically and culturally distinct population that was made out to be inferior by ethnocentric ideologies perpetuated by West Pakistan. Then-President of Pakistan Muhammad Ayub Khan called Bengalis “conquered peoples, while the inhabitants of West Pakistan were the descendants of conquerors.” 

This rhetoric, among other ideologies, inspired multiple attempts by West Pakistani officials to eradicate the linguistic and cultural sacredness of my nation by imposing Urdu as the official language rather than Bengali. 

My grandfather, who was a medic during the War of Independence in 1971, recalls how Bangladeshi men and women vehemently — and at the expense of their safety — protested the imposition of West Pakistani cultural norms and for the right to speak Bengali in what is now known as the Bengali Language Movement of 1952. In fact, speaking Bengali was such an immense source of comradery that it laid the foundation for Bangladeshi nationalism, pride, and unity years later. 

For these reasons, my difficulty reaching native fluency in Bengali can make me incredibly emotional. In both casual exchanges and heated conversations, while I try to speak as effortlessly as my grandparents do, I am stung by how uneasy I feel speaking a language my elders fought to protect. I am more comfortable when speaking English — the colonizer’s language — than when I speak my mother tongue, whose preservation and endurance came through the martyrdom of those who fought for Bangladeshi independence. 

When I last visited Bangladesh in 2017, apart from being overwhelmed by the heaviness of the mid-July heat, I was surprised by the sheer amount of ‘Banglish’ I heard. Banglish is a combination of Bengali and English, where people will switch between both languages or weave one into the other. 

As an immigrant in Canada, I knew that Banglish was a linguistic reality among people like me who had to acclimate to another culture, but I did not expect it to be so popular among people who had lived their entire lives in Bangladesh. In the urban chaos of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital, I saw endless advertisements and heard multiple conversations solely in English. Common words in Bengali were frequently substituted by English ones. 

I gradually realized the extent to which globalization and the colonial legacy of the British Empire had influenced the language bias of my community. For example, even in vernaculars not completely taken over by Banglish, it is more common to say “amakay owui chair ta dhou” — translating to “give me that chair” — because the Bengali word for “chair” is hardly ever used, and thus is an extinct piece of vocabulary among many youths, including myself. 

Even though Bengali is the state-officiated language, English has come to symbolize modernization, social prestige, and even notions of educatedness: higher paying jobs are only offered to fluent English speakers, and wealthy families tend to send their children to ‘English-medium’ schools, which predominantly teach an English curriculum. I became painfully aware of the fact that, especially among Bangladesh’s youth, proximity to a colonizer’s language often determines how a person’s social, economic, and even individual value is perceived. English being held in such high regard means that Bengali is considered a more casual, unserious, and ‘inferior’ form of communication. 

Since 2017, my grandparents and peers have told me that Banglish has become the norm for many people as they try to navigate an increasingly globalized and interconnected world, a world where our mother tongue is constantly being put on the back burner. This sombre reality makes me wonder how much of the younger generation has internalized a subconscious negative attitude toward their mother tongue, a mother tongue that people died for only two generations prior. 

Speaking in broken Bengali fills me with a sense of separateness from other Bangladeshis and gives me the impression that I will never be able to understand nor express the plight of my people. But as it turns out, both diaspora and natives are finding it harder to stay connected to their languages as English becomes more dominant. Linguistic imperialism did not end with independence from British rule. 

My grandfather growing up would always tell me that speaking Bengali was a mark of claiming cultural and ethnic uniqueness, and that it was a precursor to eventual nationhood. Above all, I wonder if I am failing to live up to the sacrifices and teachings of those who directly fought for Bangladesh’s linguistic and national independence. Honouring the historical struggle and grief of those who fought for Bengali is a challenge not only I face, but that Bangladeshis in Bangladesh face too. I am still in the process of learning my own history, having important conversations with my parents to make up for the things I’ve lost in translation, and realizing that no matter what pace I keep, it doesn’t make me any more or less Bangladeshi.