A Side Trip to Bangladesh (or); What Makes a Popular Language?

My daughter and I have a weekly routine every Sunday night.  We watch the travel program Globe Trekker and transport ourselves vicariously to an exotic corner of the world (without the expense, time off work or food borne illnesses!).  Last Sunday we watched a Globe Trekker program on Bangladesh.  Truthfully, before seeing the program, I didn’t know much about Bangladesh aside from its reputation as being one of the poorest and densely populated countries in the world.  As it turns out, Bangladesh looks absolutely fascinating … outside of monsoon season that is … Tigers, jungles, river cruises, tea plantations in the mountains, interesting people; Bangladesh looks like an incredible place despite its reputation.

Of course, being the amateur linguist that I am, I had to investigate the Bengali language afterwards [also known as Bangla].  What I found was somewhat shocking.

Bangla is an Indo-Aryan language closely related to other Northern Indian languages such as Hindi, Assamese and Bihari.  Its vocabulary has also been heavily influenced by Persian.  It is native to the region comprising Bangladesh, West Bengal, and parts of the Indian states of Tripura and Assam. Bangla has nearly 300 million total speakers which makes it the sixth most spoken language in the world.


Bangla is also the second most spoken Indian language after Hindi.   Bangla speakers are actively campaigning to have it recognized as an official language of the U.N..  Bangla has an extremely rich history in art and literature as well as being the native language of Satyajit Ray, perhaps the best known Indian film director of the 20th century.  As far as its economy, Bangladesh ranked as the 43rd largest economy in the world in 2010.  That may not sound impressive, but it is growing at 6-7% per year. This makes it one of the fastest growing economies in the world.


This led me to ask myself, why aren’t more people studying Bangla?  In fact, why aren’t more people studying Indian languages in general?  After all, Hindi is estimated to have nearly 500 million speakers (native and second language speakers) which would rank it as the second most spoken language in the world. That is more speakers than either Spanish or English! (although some estimates place non-native English speakers as high as 1.5 billion)  Punjabi  is estimated to have as many as 110 million native speakers.  That’s more native speakers than German and twice as many native speakers as French and Italian!  Punjabi is now the fourth most spoken language in Canada.


These languages have also been designated as “critical languages” by the U.S. government ( Critical languages are languages where the need for trained speakers exceeds the number of bilingual speakers available. They are deemed critical for U.S. national security and economic competitiveness. The current critical languages as recognized by the U.S. government are: Arabic, Persian, Azerbaijani, Bangla/Bengali, Hindi/Urdu, Indonesian, Korean, Punjabi, Turkish, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian).

For whatever reason, there is very little interest in the U.S. to study these languages. Less than 100 U.S. universities teach Hindi, while only 19 teach Bengali and 13 teach Punjabi.   Meanwhile, 875 U.S. universities teach Italian, 415 teach Portuguese, 120 teach Swahili, 80 teach Swedish, 60 teach Norwegian, 54 teach Irish (with 85,000 speakers)  and 30 teach Welsh (with 350,000 speakers). Spanish, French and German were not included in the database since virtually all U.S. universities include these languages in their curricula. (taken from the CARLA database at: http://www.carla.umn.edu/lctl/db/index.php )

One only needs to walk down the language aisle in a local bookstore to see volumes of instructional material in Dutch, Danish, Polish, Czech, Greek, even Bulgarian!  Hindi materials are rare and Bangla/Punjabi materials are non-existent! (Other Indian language materials in languages such as Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Marathi are even MORE scarce despite all of them having well in the tens of millions of speakers!) Clearly Indian languages are the unloved underdogs of the language universe. But why?!

I asked this question (specifically about Bangla)  to the members of a language forum here: http://how-to-learn-any-language.com/forum/forum_posts.asp?TID=32357&PN=1
Here are some of the responses that I received:

“Probably because it doesn’t have much economic clout for a language of 300 million speakers. Languages with “rich culture” are a dime a dozen, but most language learners probably focus on the few languages that have enough economic clout to make their studies worthwhile. Another reason may be many Bangla people speak English, but I don’t know about that. “

“Bengali holds a very special position within modern Indian literature being the first language which gave voice to it, and several of its authors have earned a place within the universal canon of letters. Why isn’t it more widely studied? Lack of awareness, probably. Along with the position of English within India itself. “

“I can only speak for myself. There are some 6000 languages in the world. and I can’t study them all. Therefore, I study only a few. India and Bangladesh are far, far away. I have never visited them. Maybe I will some day, but I don’t  know. I only know one Bengali speaker. He speaks excellent English and some Norwegian, so I don’t need Bengali to speak to him. It makes more sense for me to study European languages. If I’m going to study an “exotic” language,  Chinese or Japanese seem like more obvious choices. “

“Plus you’re far more likely to meet a Japanese or Chinese businessman or tourist than a Bangla businessman or tourist. There’s economics again.”

“I think part of the reason is geography. Though it has a large population of native speakers, they mostly live in Bangladesh and West Bengal, in India. For native English speakers, there aren’t a lot of occasions to use Bengali or interact with Bengali (UNLESS you live in a part of the United States, the UK or Australia where there is a community.)  I think economics aren’t as strong of a reason to learn a foreign language than people may think… Spanish, in the US, for example, is often learned because of the weight of the Spanish-speaking population in the country. I think that contact is a really important element. “

“I have an uncle-in-law who is from Bangladesh. He and my aunt’s children (my cousins) don’t speak any Bengali. He speaks perfect English, I have never asked him if he spoke both Bengali and English as a child, his accent is a bit difficult to decipher… sounds somewhat like an Indian who has spoken English natively in addition to Hindi… I digress. He also speaks Chittagona (?) dialect. Anyway I have always wanted to try learning Bengali, just basic conversation, to surprise him some day. I never found a decent course, though, and also in the back of my mind was the idea that it might not be a good idea, since his own children never made the effort to learn, and I wouldn’t want to hurt any feelings. “

So, what makes a language popular (or unpopular) to study?  I doubt it rests solely on economic opportunities and benefits (the most commonly given reason) .  Clearly the number of speakers doesn’t have much of an influence since there are scores more US students studying Welsh and Irish than are studying Bangla and Punjabi. Could it be that the prevalence of English within India/Pakistan/Bangladesh makes foreigners feel as if learning the local languages are a waste of time?   Possibly, however, many Indians have told me that most Indians without a secondary education cannot communicate at all in English.

Heritage clearly has influence over language choice.  Considering that the first wave of immigrants to the U.S. were European, it is not hard to understand how the “Big 3” of language instruction emerged as French, German and Spanish.  Over the last 40 years, however, if one excludes Mexico and Central America, the immigrants have been overwhelmingly Asian.  While schools have taken an interest in promoting Japanese and Mandarin, there seems to be little interest in promoting Indian languages, Thai, Vietnamese or Filipino.

So, I guess I’m not really sure what it takes to make it as a “popular” language.  It does seem clear that French, German and Spanish will be secure as the preferred languages for secondary language instruction in the U.S. for many years to come. Perhaps once India overtakes China as the world’s most populous country people will pay India some respect?

Anyhow, this week I took a break from Georgian to brush up on my Hindi as it was getting quite rusty and I was inspired by my research.  I went down to my local Indian restaurant to grab a bite to eat and hopefully speak a little Hindi.  As I effortlessly produced a sentence in eloquent, PERFECT Hindi to my waitress ( if I do say so myself 🙂  ) , she gave me a funny look and shook her head.

“Sir, I’m Punjabi!!!”

(grrrr.. second most spoken language in the world and I can’t find anyone to speak it with …)