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Bangladesh

Speaking up to save Bangladesh's indigenous languages from dying

About 45 indigenous groups with an estimated population of three million have distinct languages and cultures

Speaking up to save Bangladesh's indigenous languages from dying

Some 14 ethnic minority languages and cultures could disappear in Bangladesh without government support and the goodwill of the majority Bangla community. (Photo: UCA News)

Bangladesh's indigenous languages are under threat and some could die without positive action to preserve them.

Catholic and ethnic community leaders have called on authorities to protect several indigenous languages that face extinction due to a lack of government support and community efforts.

The call was made as people, irrespective of faith and ethnicity in Bangladesh and across the globe, marked the United Nations-designated International Mother Language Day on Feb. 21.

In Bangladesh, the day honors the martyrs of the Bangla Language Movement of 1952 who died when police opened fire on protesters objecting to the Pakistan government’s decision to impose Urdu as the only state language when Bangladesh was East Pakistan. The popular movement forced the regime to introduce Bangla as a state language alongside Urdu in the 1956 constitution.

The Bangla Language Movement sparked a nationalist movement that culminated in independence and the emergence of secular, democratic Bangladesh from the military-ruled Islamic state of Pakistan in 1971.

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Since independence, Feb. 21 has been known as Language Martyrs Day in Bangladesh. UNESCO declared Feb. 21 as International Mother Language Day in 1999.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who attended the inauguration ceremony for a four-day program at the International Mother Language Institute in Dhaka on the day, said her government has been making notable efforts to preserve and protect indigenous languages.    

“When we give away free textbooks every year, we print out ethnic language books and give them away for free so that they [indigenous children] too can learn and speak their own language. We have set up the International Mother Language Institute to protect the rights of languages, to respect languages and to preserve the lost languages of the world," Hasina said.

Bangla, the national language, is spoken by 99 percent of people in Bengali- and Muslim-majority Bangladesh, which has a population of more than 160 million. There are about 45 ethnic indigenous groups with an estimated population of three million who have distinct languages and cultures.

Sanjeeb Drong, an ethnic Garo Catholic and secretary of the Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum, noted the government has published textbooks for primary students in five indigenous languages, but this policy has not yielded the expected results.

“The government has published the books but there is no teacher recruitment and no rules for teaching and training. Publishing of books is not enough — you have to make arrangements for teaching properly,” Drong told UCA News.

He cited a study conducted by the International Mother Language Institute that shows at least 40 languages have been found in Bangladesh as mother tongues of ethnic groups besides Bangla, the national language. Of these, 39 languages belong to small ethnic groups and another is Urdu. Some 14 languages are in danger of disappearing

“Language is crucial to the survival of a nation. The Bangladesh government has at least started, but I would say that for the last four years books have been coming out in five languages but they are not being taught,” Drong added.

The Bangladesh government has been publishing textbooks for pre-primary levels in the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Garo and Sadri languages for the past five years.

Bangladesh’s National Education Policy 2010 stipulates that the government should take necessary steps to teach children in their mother language.

The Catholic Church has been at the forefront to protect and preserve minority languages and cultures, according to Jyoti F. Gomes, secretary of the Bangladesh Catholic Education Board, the Church’s education apostolate.

With support from Catholic charity Caritas, the Church has been publishing mother language textbooks and teaching them in schools for 15 years now, he told UCA News.

“Catholic schools pick up teachers from ethnic communities so that they can teach the students properly. This is how we have been teaching ethnic children in their mother tongue for a long time,” Gomes said.

Without government support and good intentions, it won’t be possible to protect and preserve indigenous languages, he noted.

“Even though the books were being printed for four years, a mother language education program was not implemented due to lack of teachers or training,” Gomes said.

Zinnat Imtiaz Ali, a prominent linguist and director-general of the International Mother Language Institute, said researchers would be appointed from next year to preserve endangered languages.

“We are sincere on behalf of the government of Bangladesh to preserve these languages. But among the people who speak that language, it is becoming very difficult to go ahead due to various reasons including a lack of educated people from those communities. However, we are continuing to address this issue,” Ali told UCA News.

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