The government is yet to take concrete measures to preserve the country’s endangered languages, especially those spoken by the indigenous people, and protect the rights of linguistic minorities.
The problem persists despite the fact that there is a government institution with the particular responsibility to take care of endangered and near extinct languages. The International Mother Language Institute (IMLI) was launched on March 15, 2001 and the label “international” meant that its area of work and research would include languages and linguistic heritages of other countries as well.
According to sources, other than the Bangalees, there are at least 45 groups of people indigenous to the country, with an approximate number of 30 languages spoken. Experts say many of these languages have no standard written forms, meaning the history, tradition, wisdom and knowledge of these communities are passed on orally. The lack of preservation initiatives may expedite the process of their extinction, but equally importantly as pointed out by Sanjeeb Drong, general secretary of Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum would also stand opposed to the linguistic rights enshrined within the constitution.
The Article 23(a) of the constitution says: “The state shall take steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities.”
Sanjeeb said: “The government is denying indigenous children their right to have a primary education in their own (mother) languages a right also stressed upon in the National Education Policy of 2010.”
Shourav Sikder, a professor of linguistics at the University of Dhaka, told the Dhaka Tribune that the 30 or so languages that exist in the country have been in practice for centuries among the indigenous communities. “The number of these peoples would be over 1.6 million, according to the 2011 population survey. I think the government should take strong measures to protect indigenous languages, or else we may have to risk losing them at some point or another soon,” he said.
He further said a lack of government initiatives sometimes affects adversely school enrolments of the indigenous children. “While the overall school enrolment in the country is 97-99%, according to a survey conducted by the UNDP, enrolment of indigenous children is only 67%.”
“The reason behind this is obvious: these children are not feeling comfortable in schools due to language barriers.” Rights activist Tandra Chakma, referring to another survey on primary education in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, conducted by Manusher Jonno Foundation, said a significant number of these enrolees leave early from education. “They drop out of school almost as quickly as they enrol,” she said.
Director General of IMLI Jinat Imtiaz Ali, however, told the Dhaka Tribune that they would soon launch an ethno-linguistic survey that would pave the way for providing education in indigenous languages. “The survey is intended to find the exact number of languages available in the country and their current condition. Once we are through with that, we will take measures that would help appropriately preserve these languages.”
“Usually, an ethno-linguistic survey takes 10-15 years to finish, but in our case, it will take less. However, we are currently considering launching a one-year pilot project at a cost of Tk40m. Based on its findings, we will revive near-extinct languages and develop grammar for languages that don’t have one to be used in textbooks and literature,” Ali added.
The ruling party in its election manifesto had pledged to ensure the cultural and linguistic rights of indigenous people. The Chittagong Hill Tracts Peace Accord, signed by the same party in 1997, also highlighted the importance of protection and preservation of languages.