Introduction to the Bengali language

Bengali (Bangla) is the second largest tongue of South Asia and is one of the official languages of India and the national language of Bangla Desh. Bengali is spoken and understood — either as a first or a second language — by a large number of people throughout West Bengal and Bangla Desh.

A command of spoken Bengali enables scholars traveling to South Asia to have direct contact with those who are not strongly influenced by English education and preserve more traditional cultural attitudes. Knowledge of written Bengali enables the student to have access to a rich tradition that include not only the writings of the Nobel-prize winning poet Rabindranath Tagore but also the relatively little explored early modern literature and modern Bengali, the first literary culture to respond extensively to challenges set by colonialism. In the eyes of many Bengalis, a command of Bangla expresses respect for their living culture.

A good command of Bengali can be useful, if not necessary, in many fields of academic disciplines connected with modern north-eastern India such as History, Literature, Religions, Politics, Development Studies, Social Anthropology, Media studies, Music, Linguistics etc.

Bengali Language Classes at Oxford

Learning Elementary Bengali

A new elementary Bengali course may start each year in Michaelmas term in mid-October and run for three terms. There are four or five taught classes each week held at the Oriental Institute in Pusey lane. Please note that the course is not offered every year.

The coursebook is W. Radice: “Teach Yourself Bengali”. Since Bengali pronunciation differs considerably from English students are advised to get a copy with cd.

Students enrolled in the course will go through “Teach Yourself Bengali” in the first two terms covering all essential grammar and basic vocabulary and thus being introduced into basic reading, writing and conversational skills. In the third term students will expand their vocabulary, consolidate their grammar and will be exposed to the diverse registers and styles of Bengali through texts from various sources (political and cultural journals, literary texts, cinema etc.). Their communicative skills will further be developed through regular discussions and the writing of 150-200 word Bengali compositions on a weekly basis. All students are required to pass the tests held during the teaching term.

The workload can be heavy, especially for those who are not familiar with a South Asian language. If you intend to participate, you should make sure that you can devote to Bengali 10-15 hours per week at home.

Elementary Bengali is primarily intended for students enrolled on the M. St. or M. Phil in Modern South Asian Studies. Prospective language learners from outside the Faculty of Oriental Studies should contact their tutors at their college, which will pay for the course. If the course is not full, self-paying students from outside the university may join the course and make payment before the beginning of each term. Admission for self-paying students is subject to availability and to the approval of the course tutor.

Dictionaries: Students are advised to provide a copy of the Samsad Bengali-English dictionary (Sahitya Samsad, Kolkata)  and of the Samsad English-Bengali dictionary (Sahitya Samsad, Kolkata).

Modern Bengali literary texts

Readings of a variety of Bengali literary texts are organised for students enrolled into the M. Phil in Modern South Asian Studies. Those who wish to continue their Bengali studies after going through an elementary course in Oxford or elsewhere can also attend provided the course is not full. Admission for students from outside the Faculty is subject to availability and to the approval of the course tutor.

These classes are held twice a week and constitute in translating into English and interpreting the selected texts. Along with a close reading and translation of the texts their socio-cultural context is also presented and sessions normally include a Bengali discussion of some earlier passage. Students will normally be given a basic vocabulary and should prepare their texts with the help of dictionaries in advance. They will sometimes have to present short Bengali essays about various topics related to the texts. The course normally presents a 5-10 hour weekly workload.

The texts read vary each term but they include short stories from the classics of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Bengali poetry and prose (Michael Madhusudan Dutt, Bankimchandra Chatterji, Rabindranath Tagore, Kaji Najrul Islam, Jibanananda Das, Sharat Chandra Chatterji, Tarashankar Banerji, Bibhutibhushan Chatterji etc.) and by lesser known writers. Normally more accessible texts are read in Michaelmas term and more specialised classes are held later.

Dictionaries: Students are advised to use Sailendra Biswas: Samsad Bengali-English dictionary (Sahitya Samsad, Kolkata) and Sailendra Biswas: Saṁsad baṅglā abhidhān

Other useful dictionaries are:
Samsad English-Bengali dictionary (Sahitya Samsad, Kolkata);  Jnanendra Mohan Das: Bangla bhashar abhidhan I-II. (Sahitya Samsad, Kolkata); Sukumar Sen: An etymological dictionary of Bengali, c. 1000-1800 A.D. (Eastern Publishers, Calcutta, [1971]).