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OP-ED: We exist through our languages

  • Published at 01:27 am February 21st, 2021
Indigenous children

The importance of preserving our identity as a multilingual nation

Salam, Barkat, Rafiq, and Jabbar understood the significance of one’s mother tongue at a very young age and marched in protest with their heads held high on February 21, 1952. 

The great Language Movement is a significant event in Bangladesh’s history, and we are indebted to the young and valiant martyred students for commencing the movement for the right of our mother tongue, and for protecting our identity, culture, and heritage. 

Bangladesh is the only nation in the world to have sacrificed lives to speak their mother tongue. Since the cruel killings of students on February 21, 1952, February 21 has been recognized as Language Martyr’s Day or Language Movement Day in Bangladesh. 

The idea to celebrate a day devoted to one’s mother tongue was the initiative of Bangladesh, which eventually lead to the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) declaring February 21 as International Mother Language Day worldwide from the year 2000. 

Every year on February 21, Unesco and UN agencies participate in events and activities to promote linguistic and cultural diversity among nations. The goal of celebrating this day is to encourage people to conserve their knowledge of their mother language while learning and using more than one language and respecting each other’s mother tongue. 

Language plays an important role in one’s identity, education and development, communication and social integration. Language connects us, makes us whole, and gives birth to our unique identity. 

However, due to globalization, languages around the world are under threat or have disappeared completely. Language barriers trigger thousands of vanishing world languages to become extinct. 

When a language fades, the world’s rich tapestry and cultural diversity also fades. According to the UN, at least 43% of the estimated 6,000 languages spoken in the world are endangered, and only a few hundred languages have been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world. 

Officially, Bangladesh is a monolingual country as the constitution recognizes Bangla as the only official language. 98% of the total population of the country considers Bangla their mother tongue. 

However, multilingualism has existed in Bangladesh and its neighbouring part of the world for centuries. According to Unesco, globally 40% of the world population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand. 

A similar situation prevails in Bangladesh as well. Indigenous children, especially those living in the most remote locations, cannot speak or understand Bangla. In 2010, National Education Policy and other legal frameworks included mother tongue-based education at policy level. 

Before 2017, schools in their location usually provided textbooks in Bangla and the medium of instruction used by teachers was also Bangla. As a result, student enrolment was reduced, attendance was irregular, the dropout rate was high, and student’s personal achievement was extremely low. 

Nevertheless, progress is being made in mother tongue-based multilingual education (MLE) in Bangladesh. There is a growing understanding of the importance of MLE from early schooling. 

Now, MLE schools are being established in remote and isolated areas of Chittagong Hill Tracts and plain land. After advocacy by local and international non-governmental organizations, the government of Bangladesh published and distributed books in indigenous languages in those schools. 

The goal is to ensure inclusiveness of the indigenous community and quality education for indigenous children. This also supports Target 6 of Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): “Ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy.”

National and international non-governmental organizations have been working relentlessly on ensuring MLE for indigenous children living in remote areas of Bangladesh. Save The Children in Bangladesh began MLE implementation as early as 2006 to promote indigenous children’s education in their mother tongue. 

The target is to make sure students gradually learn the national language bridging from their first language. 

Hence, students are taught entirely in their mother tongue in the first year to build confidence and increase engagement. 

Save The Children started the MLE process with community involvement where consultations and awareness-raising activities were carried out. Leaders of each language community are actively involved -- for example, Chakma scholars were consulted for Changma language and Tripura scholars for Kokborok. 

The local indigenous community has responded positively to the MLE schools and textbooks, where teachers, students and learning materials all are from same language community. 

However, all indigenous languages in Bangladesh are yet to be covered. This means that many indigenous children are still out of school. 

Multilingual and multicultural societies exist through their languages which transfer and preserve traditional knowledge and cultures in a sustainable way. It is our responsibility to preserve the differences in cultures and languages in our country so that it fosters tolerance and respect for others. 

On this Language Martyr’s Day and International Mother’s Language Day, let’s work towards ensuring inclusivity for all in aspects of language, education, and culture. 

This situation of multilingualism that had existed for centuries came to an end in 1971 with the emergence of Bangladesh as a new homogenous nation. After the independence of Bangladesh, this country has been known as the home of the Bangla speakers.

Swatil Binte Mahmud is a communications professional. This article has been reprinted from the Dhaka Tribune archives on the occasion of Ekushey.

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