George Steiner, regarded as one the greatest minds in the modern literary world, once said, "When a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it." This quotation has never been more relevant than it is today as many languages spoken in our motherland face the threat of extinction.
One particular book titled "The Preservation of Endangered Languages of Bangladesh LAHRA – written by Towhid Bin Muzaffar, Haroonuzzaman and Talim Hossain of Independent University, Bangladesh – shook me to my core a few months ago by revealing the extent of danger that some of the languages face in our country.
The book provides a gloomy picture of how a language (Lahra) is going extinct, slowly, before our very eyes, because of our sheer negligence. The language in question, the book warned, was only spoken by very few people – a little over 200 people in Rajshahi and Joypurhat district area, many of whom are old aged and illiterate. With a few speakers and no written script, Lahra could very well go extinct in the coming years.
This problem is not however unique to Lahra, but rather is a common phenomenon for many languages spoken throughout our geographical boundary. Many among the 41 tribal languages that have been spoken for decades, even centuries, are disappearing due to the lack of effective preservation methods.
International Mother Language Day on 21 February is a day that commemorates the Language Movement of 1952 and reminds us of the importance of mother languages. This fateful day marks the sacrifices of Abdus Salam, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abul Barkat, Abdul Jabbar and other martyrs who were shot dead by the East Pakistani Police for demanding the right to speak and work in their mother tongue.
Their sacrifice ensured Bangla's status as one of the National Languages in Erstwhile Pakistan (recognized in the Pakistani Constitution of 1956) and at the same time created a distinct identity which eventually led to the glorious liberation struggle of 1971 and birth of Bangladesh.
The father of our nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, mentioned in his 'Unfinished Memoirs' how the movement drastically changed the views of the populace. The language struggle urged the people for the first time to break the shackles of subjugation.
We, a generation that came long after the Liberation War, grew up reading about the struggle and listening to the tune of "Amar Bhaier Rokte Rangano," the famous song commemorating the fallen heroes of '52, all of which, to this very day, ignites an intense sense of pride in us for our mother tongue. It also bestows upon us the moral obligation to preserve mother languages of all minorities living in our country.
Yet many languages spoken by many tribal groups around the country have faced neglect for decades. A lack of long-term initiatives, an absence of proper training programs for the teachers who are supposed to teach these languages to young students of a respective tribe as well as the non-existence of tribal languages in the job market as well as other areas have dealt serious blows to many languages in our country.
When a particular language faces the risk of disappearing for multiple reasons, it is referred to as an 'Endangered' or 'Moribund' language. Generally a language goes extinct when its last remaining speakers die out or shift to speaking a more convenient language. Out of the 6,000 living languages in the world, that are recorded as yet, at least 43% are considered to be endangered by UNESCO. Based on Ethnologue's Expanded Graded Intergenerational Disruption (EGID) Scale, 2,926 languages in the world are endangered today many of which have fewer than 10,000 speakers left!
Out of the 41 languages that are spoken by tribal communities in our country, very few have written scripts, such as: Chakma, Marma, Mru, Meitei (Manipuri). The languages that lack written scripts are at risk of going extinct sooner as the number of speakers are declining quickly – mostly because of their attempts to adapt to the Bangali culture for education and jobs as they do not have any alternative. Even the languages that do have written scripts are endangered on account of having been marginalised for so long.
Dozens of languages are on the verge of extinction. Languages such as Chak, Pangkhua and Koda are categorised as 'Definitely Endangered' by UNESCO for they are spoken by fewer than 10,000 people in Bangladesh. The International Mother Language Institute (IMLI) counts more than a dozen languages as endangered and at risk of going extinct if no measures are taken to reverse the current trend.
Chak (3,000 Speakers), Hajong (8,000 Speakers), Atong (5,400 Speakers), Koda (1,300 Speakers), Riang (500 Speakers), Mizo (250 Speakers), as well as many others, are on the brink of extinction. Another critically-endangered language, Rengmitcha , a Sino-Tibetan language spoken in the Chittagong (Chattogram) Hill Tracts, is spoken by fewer than 40 people today!
These figures provide us with a clear picture that unless necessary steps are taken and taken quickly, many languages could very well go extinct in the upcoming decades with which parts of our history will also be gone forever.
The Endangered Alphabets Project in Bangladesh hopes that a solution can be found to stop 3,000 languages going extinct from the world by 2050 out of which at least a few are feared to be from our country.
Many schools in the Chittagong (Chattogram) Hill Tracts use Bangla in their proceedings, paving the way for numerous languages to be forgotten and go extinct in course of time. Though government initiatives have recently allowed some non-Bangali ethnic groups to teach their children their own languages in schools – mostly at the primary level – they have not made any significant impact since the problem remains to be one of tremendous magnitude.
BBC Bangla reported in 2017 that though the government supplied primary level textbooks in the Chakma, Marma and Manipuri languages to many schools, the teachers there are not trained or well-versed enough in those languages to teach the children. Many ethnic minorities themselves have forgotten their own scripts and are unable to read them – which is itself an indication of how close to extinction many of these tongues are!
To save these endangered mother tongues, public and private initiatives to help the ethnic groups, as well as proper training of teachers in the respective languages and inclusive policies to bring these speakers of ethnic minority languages into the mainstream are required. Article 23(A) of our constitution directs the state to take "steps to protect and develop the unique local culture and tradition of the tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities."
As a citizen of this nation, I would want to see effective legislation and initiatives to preserve dying languages and with them, parts of our shared history. But, I would also argue that this problem cannot just be solved through a government initiative, a parliamentary act by the legislators or generous grants by overseas non-governmental organisations, as it will not disappear unless we, the ethnic Bangalis, become aware of and welcome all these other ethnic groups from different parts of our country.
Mandatory courses such as Bangladesh Studies in schools, colleges and universities must include these matters explicitly and inspire inclusiveness. Unless we do that, we will lose languages like Rengmitca in the near future – which has fewer than 40 native speakers left.
I remember the public outrage from Bangladesh and the Indian state of West Bengal when the Bharatiya Janata Party's – the ruling party of India's – government in the state of Assam published the National Register of Citizens draft in 2018. It stripped four million people – mostly ethnic Bangalis – of their Indian citizenships, in an anti-Bangali measure by some hardline ethic Assamese politicians. Surely the concern and care we Bangladeshis have for the preservation of Bangla language and its speakers should also be extended to those who we share our motherland with.
This is February, the month that we made immortal by shedding our blood for Bangla, hence we must now look at all other ethnic groups – of our country, if not of the world – to ensure that every mother tongue flourishes and pieces of their unique cultural history endures.
We cannot let millions of ethnic minorities and their culture be forgotten as they, too, call Bangladesh their home. The preservation of languages and inclusive linguistic policies will strengthen our bond with other ethnic groups which may eventually play a vital role to curb "native-settler" confrontations in Chittagong (Chattogram) Hill Tracts as well as bring all ethnic groups scattered around the country closer to work for the betterment of our nation. And only by doing that can we truly create a brighter Bangladesh and honor the heroes of 1952.
Sharifuzzaman is a postgraduate student of English Language and Literature at Jashore University of Science and Technology with an avid interest in geopolitics, literature and history.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.