Doing science in Bangla

Muhammed Zafar Iqbal: I am not a linguist but I couldn’t help noticing a few things about Bengali language. Let’s take a simple sentence: ‘I love you’. In Bengali, we say ‘Ami tomake bhalobashi’; (believe it or not it is quite acceptable to write Bengali like this in e-mails and in Internet activities. We could have an elegant solutions like writing Unicode compliant real Bengali, but as usual we are slightly behind our schedule in the cyber world — so, using Latin characters to write Bengali is common practice these days.) Any way, ‘Ami Tomake Bhalobashi’ has three words and from elementary mathematics we know that the three words can be arranged in factorial 3 ways, which is 3x2x1=6. The possible permutations are: Ami Tomake Bhalobashi, Ami Bhalobashi Tomake, Tomake Ami Bhalobashi, Tomake Bhalobashi Ami, Bhalobashi Ami Tomake, Bhalobashi Tomake Ami.

I found it very interesting that every single permutation is acceptable in Bengali, one combination is probably more acceptable than the other (if you find a particular combination a bit unusual just read it like a poem!) but none are wrong. I can not compare it with other languages from a linguist’s point of view, but I do know that English is not so flexible.

The other five combinations beside ‘I love you’ (I you love, Love I you, Love you I, You I love, You Love I) are not acceptable in English language. I have a hunch every Bengali male tried to write a poem in his lifetime because of our language, it’s exceedingly forgiving and it is unbelievably flexible which makes it a perfect language for writing poem. (This poses the next obvious question — why only Bengali males but I am going to discuss the language aspect and I do not want to get into a gender issue here!)

Now let me take a similar example from a science textbook (Physics by Robert Resnick and David Halliday — the one I read in my undergraduate years at Dhaka University). Let me randomly pick a sentence: ‘We can show that there are two kinds of charge by rubbing a glass rod with silk and hanging it from a long thread as in fig. 26-1’. I am positive that the meaning of the sentence is obvious to almost everyone, even to a non-science individual. The sentence is constructed in such a way that we get the information in correct order. First it says (1) there are two types of charges, then (2) the experiment one can do to figure it out this and then (3) reference to a figure in case the description of the experiment is not good enough to understand.

Now I would like to give you the same information in Bengali. One obvious way is to translate the sentence in Bengali and very quickly I discover that it is not that simple. If I want to restrict it to one sentence then the best translation I can do is following: ‘Ekta kacher dandake silk diye ghoshe 26-1 chhobite dekhano upaye ekta lomba shuta diye jhuliye rekhe amra dekhate pari je charge du rokomer’. You can try but I have a hunch you will not do much better then this. The sentence is okay, but the sequence of information is messed up — I gave the information in the wrong order.

If I want to do it right and keep the sentence simple then I have to break it into three separate sentences, like: (1) Amra dekhate pari je charge du rokomer. (2) Ekta kacher dandake silk diye ghoshe ekta lomba shuta diye jhuliye rekhe sheta dekhano jai. (3) 26-1 nombor chhobite sheta dekhano hoyechhe. Now the language is simple and lucid — but I had to sacrifice volume the text is significantly bigger.

I was not aware of this problem before. Every now and then I read science text books written in Bengali and always felt uncomfortable looking at the language — it is never simple, never direct — I found the language always a bit convoluted. I thought the science writers didn’t have a good grasp of the language. A couple of years ago I started writing a Physics book in Bengali for secondary school students and right away I understood the problem. I realised Bengali is a beautiful language for writing poetry but a difficult language for writing science. I do not know how or why this happens but it is true.

My guess is we have not used Bengali to write science books and the language is not ready yet for explaining science in a concise way. So every time we try to explain science in Bengali, the language of the book becomes a bit complicated and convoluted. I do not think we have any simple solution for this problem. The one and only solution is difficult and time consuming. We have to keep writing science books using Bengali and very slowly our language will become science-ready.

We have a very different problem in science writing altogether. In the field of science and technology we are not at the contributing end, we are always at the receiving end. So the terminology used in science and technology are not in Bengali. It is important that we learn science (or for that matter anything important) in our mother tongue — but it is not important to make sure that the terms used science is translated in Bengali. A physics student will use the term charge all his life, then why does he have to call it bibhob when he is studying it in school? Why does the student call a resistor rodh when he has to forget this word and relearn resistor for his college and university education? What is the rationale behind all this?

I believe that we should expose our students to the real scientific and technical terms and not to complicated and artificial Bengali sounding words. If in the process we can incorporate a few thousand new real scientific and technological words in our language — I think we make our language a few thousand words richer. It doesn’t restrict us in any way — if a brilliant scientist discovers something new and gives it a Bengali name it will become a scientific word. Since most our college and universities are in English and all the terms used in those books are in English we should make it an effort to teach our school students the real terms.

I have one last observation about science and Bengali — that is the Bengali numerals. You can not do science without crunching numbers and we always do it using English numerals. Everyone needs to use calculators and the numbers are in English numerals. Since we use both Bengali and English interchangeably in our documents for various reasons — we tend to use Bengali and English numbers as well. I can give examples where I faced very serious problems where I could not figure out if the number is 40 in Bengali or 80 in English, or 27 in Bengali or 29 in English.

After a couple of frustrating encounters I have started following a convention, in all my writings of science or mathematics — even in Bengali text I use English numerals. I do not think I am showing disrespect to my mother tongue — I do it because I do not have any other choice. It is not practical to do it in any other way anymore. I think this problem should be addressed by our academicians, linguists and intellectuals as soon as possible. I have noticed everyone else has started doing it, so why don’t we make it official for the students?

Our education system is in a mess right now, at some point we have to straighten it out — I do not know when that is gong to happen. I hope everyone realises that the only way we can learn basic science (or anything important for that matter) is in our mother tongue. We are very lucky that we have such a powerful language — we may need to use it for science more often so that it can also become science-ready. If a student has a very good understanding of science and mathematics, if he knows all the terms in English, if he is comfortable with the English numerals — and if he really learns English for 12 years as we do, it will be a trivial task to switch the medium of instruction to English at the university level. Unfortunately there are too many ifs-are we ready to tackle all the ifs?

The author is head of the department, Computer Science and Engineering, Shahjalal University of Science and Technology, Sylhet.