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Nothing for us without us

  • Published at 12:48 pm February 21st, 2021
Indigenous children
File photo: Indigenous children receive free textbooks written in their mother language. Last year, Bangladesh’s National Curriculum and Textbook Board distributed 2,30,130 copies of textbooks in five ethnic languages but there are some 50 indigenous communities with at least 40 active ethnic languages Dhaka Tribune

In Bangladesh policy is somewhat in the right direction when it comes to providing education to indigenous minorities in ethnic languages. But when it comes to implementation, the process appears slow and tardy

Ever since the world started celebrating February 21 as the International Mother Language Day after the UNESCO’s 1999 declaration, its worldwide annual observances have promoted awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. But never before, the observance of this day, probably attached such importance on preservation of languages spoken by the indigenous communities all over the world. This year’s observance is a call on policymakers, educators and teachers, parents and families to scale up their commitment to multilingual education, and inclusion in education to advance education recovery in the context of Covid-19. This day recognizes that languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion, and the Sustainable Development Goals’ focus on leaving no one behind. Education, based on the first language or mother tongue, must begin from the early years as early childhood care and education is the foundation of learning. 

February 21 returns to us in 2021 at a time when the memories of the UN’s observance of 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages haven’t faded yet and we’re just a year away from observing the United Nations International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032). Building on the lessons learnt during the International Year of Indigenous Languages (2019), we need to recognize today the importance of indigenous languages to social cohesion and inclusion, cultural rights, health and justice and highlight their relevance to sustainable development and the preservation of biodiversity as they maintain ancient and traditional knowledge that binds humanity with nature.

One may wonder why preservation of indigenous languages should be so precious and why should we be so concerned about classroom education in one’s own mother tongue. Current data indicates that at least 40 percent of the 7,000 languages used worldwide are at some level of endangerment. While reliable figures are hard to come by, experts agree that indigenous languages are particularly vulnerable because many of them are not taught at school or used in the public sphere. Of the 7,000 existing languages, the majority have been created and are spoken by indigenous peoples who represent a big part of the world’s rich cultural diversity. Yet many of these languages are disappearing at an alarming rate, as the communities speaking them are confronted with assimilation, enforced relocation, educational disadvantage, poverty, illiteracy, migration and other forms of discrimination and rights violations. Given the complex systems of knowledge and culture developed and accumulated by these local languages over thousands of years, their disappearance would not mean only losing of the languages but losing a cultural treasure.  It would deprive us of the rich diversity they add to our world and the ecological, economic and sociocultural contribution they make.

In run up to the observation of the upcoming Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022 – 2032), UNESCO led series of activities attaching most importance on rights of indigenous language users. In one of such events, held early last year, over 500 participants from 50 countries, including government ministers, indigenous leaders, researchers, and other stakeholders, adopted the ‘Los Pinos Declaration’ in Mexico City. The Los Pinos Declaration sets out the key guiding principles for the International Decade, including the centrality of indigenous peoples with the slogan ‘Nothing for us without us’. The Declaration asserts this principle in decision-making, consultation, planning and implementation processes. 

In its strategic recommendations for the Decade, the Los Pinos Declaration emphasizes indigenous peoples’ rights to freedom of expression, to an education in their mother tongue and to participation in public life using their languages, as prerequisites for the survival of indigenous languages many of which are currently on the verge of extinction. With regard to participation in public life, the Declaration highlights the importance of enabling the use of indigenous languages in justice systems, the media, labour and health programmes. It also points to the potential of digital technologies in supporting the use and preservation of those languages.

The idea to celebrate International Mother Language Day was the initiative of Bangladesh. It was approved at the 1999 UNESCO General Conference and has been observed throughout the world since 2000. In Bangladesh, 21st February is the anniversary of the day when the people of Bangladesh (then east Pakistan) fought for recognition for the Bangla language. Now that Bangla has been rooted deep in cultural heritage of Bangladesh, some parts of India and among diaspora people living all over the world, it’s incumbent on us (the majority Bangla-speaking people in this part of the world) to help protect and prosper the other languages that indigenous communities use for daily communications. One best way to do that is let people of diverse ethno-linguistic communities read and write in their own languages and facilitate publish textbooks, train teachers so that primary level education can, at least, be catered to the pupils in their respective mother tongues.  

In Bangladesh policy direction is, somewhat, in the right direction when it comes to providing education to indigenous minorities in ethnic languages. But when it comes to implementation, the process appears slow and tardy. Here, government decided to publish textbooks in ethnic languages back in 2012. But not before 2017, it succeeded distributing textbooks in a few indigenous languages. Last year, Bangladesh’s National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB) managed distributing 2,30,130 copies of textbooks in five ethnic languages (Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Sadri and Garo) for 97,594 students. But there are some 50 indigenous communities in Bangladesh with at least 40 active ethnic languages. For instance, several lakh people in some of the northwestern districts of Bangladesh belong to a rich Santal indigenous heritage but they can’t get their children educated in mother tongue due to lack of books in Santal language.   

International Mother Language Institute (IMLI), headquartered in Dhaka, took up a scientific survey program for ethnic-language of Bangladesh back in 2014. But after all these years it could publish only one out of 10 intended volumes on the outcome of its survey and subsequent research. Many consider that IMLI, to a large extent, has failed to live up to the expectation and confined itself into the routine rituals of holding seminars, symposiums and day celebrations. It even can’t fully utilize the budget that it is provided with. These are unfortunate for a country where people of many rich indigenous communities and diverse linguistic heritages need urgent patronization so that the languages and their linked cultures aren’t lost forever.  

It is through language that we communicate with the world, define our identity, express our history and culture, learn, defend our human rights and participate in all aspects of society. Through language, people preserve history, customs and traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking, meaning and expression of their respective communities. They also use it to construct their future. Many of us take it for granted that we can conduct our lives in our home languages without any constraints or prejudice.  But this is not the case for everyone. Linguistic diversity (link is external) is increasingly threatened as more and more languages disappear. Globally 40 per cent of the population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand. Nevertheless, progress is being made in mother tongue-based multilingual education with growing understanding of its importance, particularly in early schooling, and more commitment to its development in public life.

It’s of paramount importance that majorities in any given society take conscious initiatives to protect and preserve the language, literature and culture of minorities in that society. If nothing is done, there always remains the risk of ‘language shift’, that eventually leads to ‘language death’. Language shift is the process whereby a speech community shifts to a different language, usually over an extended period of time. Often, languages that are perceived to be higher status stabilize or spread at the expense of other languages that are perceived by their own speakers to be lower-status. There are many examples of such ‘language shift’ in history – one earliest being the shift from ‘Gaulish’ language to Latin during the time of the Roman Empire. In linguistics, language death occurs when a language loses its last native speaker and usually language shifts lead to language death. 

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