Does the Prospect of Bengali Culture in America Look Gloomy? Part 3 – A Continuum

By Amitava Sen

Lost in Translation:

Language is arguably the important, if not most important component of culture because much of it is conveyed orally or in writing. It is impossible to understand the nuances and deep meaning of a culture without knowing its language and knowing it well. Language is more than just a means of communication. It influences senses and understanding of arts, culture and even our thought process. How children actually learn a language is not clear. Most linguists believe that they do by listening and trying to communicate with adults.

But what are the adults doing to steer our children to our language?  We mostly do not communicate with them in the language of the culture we are trying to induct them into. Indeed the language the parents and the children mostly use is infrequently Bengali.

True, we are not in their home but we overhear the telephone conversation between them, the first generation parents and the second generation children, often and it is all in English. Only Bengali expression that you hear is “Baba” interspersed in between sentences. (Baba is a word used affectionately to address the children, English synonyms being ‘my baby’ or ‘sweetie’) They sure love their children very much, but their professed love for the culture does not go far enough to cause the children discomfiture by suggesting that they speak in Bengali with their parents.

The case is not much rosier with subsequent group of first generation immigrants, who have arrived in nineties during dot-com era. They do not want to have anything to do with Bengali art and culture. They are into Bollywood and in order to cultivate their patronage Banga Sammelan, the most ballyhooed Bengali annual event dedicated to the promotion of Bengali Culture in North America assigns most of its resources and direct most of the effort in sponsoring Hindi movie songs and dances.

The personal circumstances of this “Johnny came lately” first generation are not friendly for their native language either. Majority of them got married after they had moved to this country at which time they earned the sobriquet, NRI, emboldening their parents back home to find a suitable but upscale match who as a general rule had an English medium schooling. This younger first generation have children in their teens, tweens or just past the childhood.   Even back home the women they are married to, preferred conversing in English with their friends and peers.   For this batch of mothers to speak Bengali with their American born children would be an anathema to them. (Author’s views are formed out of very unscientific survey based on observation and inquiries.)

So, who is teaching our children the language of our culture?

Not their schools, not the TV and unfortunately not their parents.

(Only possibility of redemption may be in Sudipta’s plays, which have all Bengali dialogue, if only Sudipta (our own playwright) produces them abundantly and if only you can make your offspring go there.)

For the children of our America born second generation, the prospect is dimmer. Their parents do not communicate with each other in Bengali. Besides, most marriages are outside our Bengali community and the household medium of communication is English, unavoidably. The children of the first generation who came in early seventies at least heard Bengali being spoken at home between the parents. Unfortunately, it is not so with the next generation.

So, how does the future of Bengali art and culture look like, in America?

I say, not very promising.


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