An initiative to teach Marma language

Throughout history, ideas or languages of the powerful dominated over those in the margin. In light of this domination, scholars and activists often talk about linguistic genocide. In the context of Bangladesh, there are languages in Bangladesh that are under some threat. Recently, a group of Marma youths has initiated an informal language programme to teach Marma alphabets to young students from their community with the intention to protect their language, culture and make inter generational communication more effective. Nahid Riyasad writes about their endeavour. 

Participants of the initiative.A GROUP of Marma youths, from different educational institutions of Dhaka, gather once a week, on the lush green lawns of Curzon Hall at University of Dhaka (DU). Their purpose is quite intriguing and worth pondering. This is a Marma alphabet learning group, Marma youths are learning their alphabets. Now the obvious question arises that why are Marma students learning their own language? What are the reasons behind this initiative? Apparently, this initiative is nothing simple, rather it has socio-political-economic reasons concerning ethnic minorities in Bangladesh.

Kongjory Marma, a student of this class said that his mother used to sing lullaby to him, however, with the time, he has not only forgotten the lyrics, but also failed to grasp the meanings. Another student, Snau Marma, said that she is unable to recognise many birds, flowers in her mother tongue. This scenario is rather frustrating as lack of understanding in their mother tongue, in turn, is detaching them from their culture, land and family.

In order to battle this condition, Bangladesh Marma Students’ Council comes up with an initiative to familiarise native speakers with their written language. Nue Mong Prue Marma, president of its Dhaka unit shares their experience and ideology behind this programme. ‘It started from the first week of this year, January 5, and currently we are operating in three universities. We are working with a vision, which is to sustain the mother tongue among Marma youths’, he said.

Teaching materials from the outdoor class.With an informal conversation with the participants, New Age Youth has come to learn a grim reality among Marma people, unfortunately, this scenario is true for most of the ethnic languages in our country. Students are encouraged from the family to learn Bangla and English, in order to take active part in the economic sector smoothly. In this process, their mother tongue is ignored. Those who leave home for education at an early age, they are left even behind, being raised up in a Bangla speaking environment, they become more detached with their families, their culture and narratives of their ancestors. In their short visits to home during study breaks, they found it challenging to communicate with their families in mother tongue.

Nishi Mong has been with this initiative since its inception, he comes up with his story. ‘Traditionally, Marma texts are taught at the monasteries, many of our parents can write, however, they are very reluctant to teach their next generation this knowledge. As a result, we are becoming alienated from our own culture, we are facing obstacles in communication even with our parents, this is nothing but a very sad situation,’ he says in a pensive mood. Snau Marma adds to this conversation, ‘At least two of my cousins live in Myanmar. When they text us in Marma script, we feel like aliens and don’t understand a word of our own language, this is nothing but a shame for us, and of course disrespectful. We have to ask them to text back in English alphabet’.

Nuthowai Marma is teaching this DU batch from the starting. He learnt his language from his family and says he is thankful to his parents that they equipped him with a very essential skill. Unlike many of his contemporary Marma youths, he knows his language thoroughly. ‘I truly believe that this is my responsibility to teach other Marma people about their language, their alphabet thus strengthening their bond with their culture and family,’ he expresses himself.

Marma alphabet class commencing.After their initiative, many of their family members are appreciating their endeavour to educating Marma people on their mother tongue. ‘Our parents and other family members are viewing this project with a very open mind and appreciation’, says Nishi Mong. He adds, ‘we are getting a lot of mental support from our family members.’

When talking about the future of this programme, Nue Mong shows us immense hope. ‘We have started this initiative from our responsibility towards our culture and ancestors. From the beginning, we are getting immense response from Marma youths. In future, we might broaden our opportunities but we shall continue’, he oozes confidence. ‘We are like the soldiers of the movie 300, we shall stand against all odds to protect our culture and language. We shall continue our battle even if just a single student is left’, Nishi shows no sign of stopping, rather sheer determination and will.

Language is the communication system of a certain group of people, in most cases, that group of people is responsible for its smooth transition to the next generation. When this bridge is broken, the future of that language becomes vulnerable, even endangered. Sensing the future, Bangladesh Marma Students’ Council steps forward and takes the responsibility of protecting Marma language. By teaching speakers its alphabets, the understanding of the language among the users will be strengthened. In future, unlike their parents, these youths will be able to teach their children their mother tongue. This single initiative will protect their language, culture as well as the bond between generations. This could also be taken as an exemplary initiative for the other ethnic languages of Bangladesh which are on the verge of extinction.


Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.        


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