Language lost in transition

We, Bengalis, love our mother tongue Bangla. We bear the spirit of the 1952 language movement in our heart and observe Ekushey February with utmost respect. But do we respect the 40 other languages of our country? Do we feel that many of these languages are dying? Is the government doing anything to save them from extinction? Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree tries to find out

International Mother Language Institute, Dhaka.

International Mother Language Institute, Dhaka.

February prides us linguistically. It brings us the collective celebrations of our identity as Bengali, spanning the month. The pride and the celebrations are an expression of the language movement of 1952 when we fought for our right to mother tongue. The very spirit of the 1952 language movement, through uprisings and struggles, reached its climax in our struggle for national independence in 1971. Bangladesh was born.

Because of the birth of our country beginning with a movement that centred on the fight for the right to our mother tongue, the spirit runs in our blood. We have been celebrating the victory in the fight since then, officially and unofficially, with exuberance and in silence. This makes language so important in our lives. We place flowers at shahid minars in the morning every February 21 and pay respect to the martyrs for mother tongue.

The day, Shahid Dibas, or Martyrs’ Day as is officially known, came to be celebrated as International Mother Language Day with a UNESCO proclamation of November 17, 1999. The inaugural celebration of the day, as proclaimed by UNESCO, was in 2000.

z_p35-SignificanceIn 1952, the language movement spoke for linguistic pluralism. The West Pakistan-based ruling quarters wanted to make Urdu the only state language of the whole of Pakistan — in West Pakistan, where no single language featured then so prominently, and in East Pakistan, where people mostly spoke Bangla. Our demand that time was not the exclusion of Urdu but the inclusion of Bangla as a state language.

The UNSECO intention in its proclamation was to promote peace and multilingualism and to protect all mother tongues, which means all languages, around the world. ‘…the dissemination of mother tongues’, as an online UNESCO document says, ‘will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world….’


In official efforts to promote linguistic diversity and preserve all languages, the International Mother Language Institute, which earned a Category II institute status of UNESCO in 2015, embarked on a survey in 2014. The institute in its preliminary survey findings listed 41 languages extant in Bangladesh.

Ethnologue, run by SIL International, also lists 41 languages, and all living, in Bangladesh. It categorises nine of them being in trouble. This trouble could mean being threatened, not being shifted to the new generation, used only by the grandparent generation and used by the grandparent generation only when there is a scope.

Most of the languages other than the prominent ones, listed by both the IMLI and Ethnologue, are used for speech communications, with oral tradition of literature in somewhat standardised forms. Some of them have their own script, naturally evolved or adaption of the Roman script tailored to the needs.

While 17 of the languages, as IMLI documents say, have writing systems of their own, 14 of them are in a state of decline and are fast falling out of use. Although 17 of the languages have their writing systems, most of the speakers of the languages cannot read or write in the scripts because of poor or no education in their own languages.

And their exposure to other languages, mainly Bangla and English, for their social, economic and political needs just compounds the problem. A situation like this only warrants more efforts, on part of the government and on part of the communities concerned, for the development and even preservation of the languages.

The 14 languages that the IMLI survey finds to be at threat of being extinct are Mundari, Malto, Kheying, Khumi, Kol, Chak, Pangkhwa, Pattra/Laleng, Lusai, Khariya, Shoura, Koda, Kando and Rengmitca.

Malto, a Dravidian language, spoken in the north of Dinajpur and south of Rangpur, has around 8000 speakers. The language has no writing system. Lusai, spoken in Rangamati and at Sajek in Banderban, has around a thousand speakers. The language has its writing system using Roman script. Shoura, an Austro-Asiatic language, has only a few speakers left and is about to die. It has no writing system. There are 17 other languages which have less than 5000 speakers. The number of speakers for other languages range between 5,000 and 5,00,000.

Ethnologue, which agrees with the IMLI survey on the number of languages but differs on the categorisation and naming of a few, says that 12 of the languages are developing, being in vigorous use with literature in a standardised form, used by some but not yet widespread. It further lists 16 languages as vigorous, being in use for face-to-face communications by all generations and are, therefore, sustainable.

The process for these languages to be slipping out of tongue has not happened overnight. The languages have fallen into trouble as they have not been able to remain in active use. But this happens for quite a few reasons. Languages could die with the speakers all dying out. Languages also die because of many socio-political reasons that exist in society.

Bangla that has earned its place through a fight for linguistic pluralism in 1952 started overshadowing other small languages after the country’s independence in 1971. While essentially the English language ruled for a very long period after independence, Bangla, because of a majoritarian view of the Bengalis, started thwarting the growth of other languages.

Small languages keep facing dominance, and failing to keep up, as whatever happens in Bangladesh mostly happens in Bangla or English. Small languages can earn their speakers neither bread nor board. Official activities are run in Bangla even in areas where Bangla is hardly people’s first language. A situation like this continuing for a very long period has prompted speakers of other languages to disregard their own tongue. The young in the communities are hardly interested in learning, or speaking, their own language, let alone reading and writing in them. Literary practice remains a far cry. When language becomes a barrier to living, living embraces the language that does remove such a barrier.

In such a situation, the sustainability of languages becomes more precarious when the languages do not have any written form, or the writing systems for the speakers to use. A majoritarian view of the Bengalis has also stopped the government from taking any steps for the development of other languages that are in vigorous use or the preservation of the languages that are in trouble.

This threatening situation stands us where we could trip into being a monolithic nation, devoid the rich linguistic diversity that we still have. Multilingualism has never been an easy adventure, but it has never failed to pay abundantly either.

Multilingualism is said to offer more resources and richness in culture and knowledge. The more languages people speak, the better their knowledge is. Now, if Bangladesh loses, say, 15 of the languages of ethnic minorities, it will lose a huge chunk of age-old cultures of the country.

Aloron Khisa, a writer, a member of Chakma community, says, ‘Languages live when they are in practice. And the practice takes place when there is need the for the language. Ethnic minority languages are neither in use in government functions nor in personal lives. How could the languages live then? Languages need to be in practice in terms of their practical purposes.’

The government seems to have been trying, but perhaps not adequately. The IMLI, as its regulations published in 2010 says, is to work for the preservation of all ethnic languages of not only Bangladesh and of the world. The institution is carrying out the ethnolinguistic survey to decide which languages are in danger and the reasons thereof. The survey, as the instiution claimed, is to be published soon. The next step is to mend the harm, or arrest the decline, that has already happened.

Scripts or writing systems are what first needed for the preservation of languages. If a language does not have one, it is better to devise it. The IMLI is supposed to devise the script for languages having no written form and publish grammar books and dictionaries for the languages. Literary works need to be document for the languages that have their writing systems so that the cultures are not lost. An extended research on ethnic languages is what is warranted. Asked about the progress in such activities, Professor Jinnat Imtiaz Ali, director general of the IMLI, said, ‘We have for long been conducting an ethnolinguistic survey. We have almost reading our findings. We hope to publish the survey in several volumes soon. Our plan is to prepare text corpora for all ethnic languages. We have plans to write the grammar and publish the dictionaries. But this needs time, dedication and adequate human resources which we lack now.’

The government alone cannot pull off such gigantic task if speakers of the languages do not cooperate. Initiatives need to come from them too. There should be concerted efforts as insight into and knowledge of the languages would play a crucial role in the preservation and development of the languages.

This leads to the next problem at hand. The government has rather taken a good move by introducing textbooks in some of the prominent ethnic minority languages. In 2017, it was limited to the pre-primary textbooks in five languages and this year, textbooks for the first primary class have been introduced, with plans to progress by one more class each year.

This seems to have brought the hopes and an effective education system for ethnic minority people could well begin. Learning is becomes lasting for students when the first language is used. This could also enhance the process to enhance the preservation of the languages.

Two issues, however, still remain. The languages chosen by the government, Chakma, Garo, Marma, Sadri, Tripura for now and Santali for sometime later are the most prominent ones, having larger number of speakers. Does it really then solve the problem? Is it fair to the other ethnic minority languages! Then, do we have enough teachers, adequately trained, even if we have the textbooks? The small the communities, the more slim the chances of having people to serve the communities as teachers. It is, thus, the government’s job to ensure this if no one from the communities are eligible to teach. The government needs to find out people and train them in teaching at schools in these languages.

Aloron Khisha sheds light on this government initiative from a more practical aspect. He says, ‘The government must have a good reason for introducing textbooks in some ethnic languages at the pre-primary level. But if this remains limited only to reading but is not used in other spheres of life, what is the point of learning the languages? If you talk to 10 Chakma people, you will almost none who can read or write in their script. But they can read and write in Bangla and English. Necessity drives it all.’

Saving ethnic languages will save the rich history of cultural diversity. Devising scripts for the languages, publishing grammar books and dictionaries, preparing corpora, researching their history and culture, setting deadlines for the jobs and, most of all, associating practical purposes to the languages could take the situation forward. All needs to be done before it is too late.

Shaikha Shuhada Panzeree is a member of the New Age Youth team.

Comments are closed.