Blog piece by Elizabeth J. Erling based on an article written by Elizabeth J. Erling, Philip Seargeant and Mike Solly in the latest issue of English Today
Having worked in an educational project that sought to enhance English language teaching across Bangladesh brought me to visit schools in rural areas. Once there, I sometimes wondered: what is the value of English learning for these communities? The schools often didn’t have electricity, the villages were difficult to access, or even impossible during certain parts of the year. Literacy rates in the country still hover around 55 per cent, and 30 per cent of the population live below the international poverty line. Surely there were more pressing development needs than English language learning?
With this in mind, this research project set how to examine how English is perceived in rural Bangladesh and whether people in these communities viewed English language learning as a positive and, in some sense, necessary resource for development. The article investigates what it is that these communities feel that English can offer both in practical and in socio-cultural terms for the developmental challenges they face. In order to examine these questions the article draws on results from an ethnographical survey of two rural areas in Bangladesh which investigated the attitudes and aspirations of local community members to the potential impact of English-language education on their social prospects and cultural identities.
The research found that, overall, there is a strong belief in the power of English and a desire to be one of the many who speak the language for reasons of practicality and prestige. Knowledge of English was associated with education in general, and often a good education, with higher level professions, and with providing a service to the community. English was also found to provide access to privileged information and resources that were beneficial to individuals and the community. In some cases, however, knowledge of English was unrealistically perceived as a general panacea. Because of this, some people appear to be willing to invest significantly in English language education, making sacrifices for their children’s education and putting it before other resources, which may also be (more) needed in such contexts.
These findings therefore suggest a need for development programmes in contexts such as this to be aware of these strong beliefs in the power of English, so that they can both manage expectations and focus on providing English language learning for specific, local purposes that enhance opportunities for economic and social development, while providing the circumstances for people to sustain and promote local concerns and values.