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A Foreign Policy for the Bengali Language Willem van Schendel I am a native speaker of Dutch.

This is the language I learned as a child, the language I dream in, the language I can best express my thoughts and feelings in, and the language I speak with my children. Chances are that you are a native speaker of Bengali and that you know little or nothing about the Dutch language. You may not know that the two languages are distant cousins and that some words are similar. For example, the white things in your mouth that you call দঁাত, I call তাঁত. And when you say ইস্ক্রুপ or হরতন or তুরুপ, you are speaking Dutch without knowing it. There are many more similarities, such as the fact that the first recognizably Bengali texts date from about the 10th century CE, and so do the first Dutch texts. Each language has developed a huge and distinguished literary tradition. And Dutch is the national language of three countries (the Netherlands, Belgium and Surinam), just as Bengali is the national language of Bangladesh and a state language in India. Hardly any Bengali speakers know anything about Dutch. Hardly any Dutch speakers know anything about Bengali. Does that matter? After all, there are thousands of languages in the world. Why should others know about Bengali? But it is not only Dutch speakers who know little about Bengali: beyond the Bengal delta and Bengali migrant communities around the world, Bengali is almost invisible. This is very unfortunate and worrying. Bengali may be among the seven largest languages in the world but internationally it is by far the least known of these languages. In fact, you could argue that Bengali is less visible now than it was fifty years ago, when a scholar wrote about Bengali: ‘The literary tradition is unbroken, from the ninth or tenth century Buddhist esoteric texts … to the present. It is somewhat surprising that little is known in the West about a literature so old and so rich.’ Fifty years ago, it was possible to learn Bengali at many universities in Europe, North America and Asia. Today, this is no longer the case. Nowadays, far more universities worldwide offer Dutch courses than Bengali courses, even though there are ten times as many Bengali speakers. As the University of California at Berkeley writes on its website: ‘in the United States, Bangla is regularly taught at only one institution of higher education and

Could we not think of the governments of Bangladesh. His next book. Clearly. In 1980 the governments of the Netherlands. It is surprising that Bangladesh. ------- Willem van Schendel is Professor of Modern Asian History at the University of Amsterdam. an organization to support the teaching of Dutch worldwide.’ As a result. we urgently need a foreign policy for Bengali. is The Bangladesh Reader: History. It is a unique organization: nowhere else in the world does such a treaty exist between countries with the same language. West Bengal and Tripura developing something similar? Could the Bangla Academy not coordinate a dynamic foreign policy for the Bengali language? And could the many probashi associations around the world not be involved in such an effort? Surely. It will be out in Spring 2013. Dutch for ‘Language Union’). co-edited with Meghna Guhathakurta. and the best of them are invited to a summer school in the Netherlands. from Turkey to Japan.000 students – from Mexico to South Africa. . Politics (Duke University Press). still does not have an effective policy to promote the learning of Bengali abroad. Belgium and Surinam joined hands to create the ‘Taalunie’ (তালুনী. Teaching Bengali abroad has markedly declined. Culture. a country that prides itself on its Language Movement and has successfully established the International Mother Language Day. a community as proud of its language as the Bengalis would benefit enormously from projecting that language globally far more vigorously than it is doing today. Here the Dutch experience may perhaps give some inspiration. from France to the United States – study the language. And it is very effective: now annually over 15. the Bengali language has lost a lot of its global visibility and appeal.sporadically at a handful of other universities.