There are only six people left who can speak their mother tongue, living in a remote area of Bandarban Hill tracts under the Mro tribe, but all of them are more than 60 years old. When these six die, the Rengmitcha language will be lost from the country.
Yangan Mro, a writer and researcher of Mro language, told The Business Standard he has come to know, through an American language researcher, "There are descendents under the Mro tribe living in remote areas of Alikadam Upazila and those people language completely different from us."
"Then I started working with the American language researcher and found 22 people who speak Rengmitcha as their mother tongue. In 2013, we identified 22 Rengmitcha-speaking people but in 2021 the number has fallen to 6, as the rest have already died during this period."
"The six survivors are living separately in four neighborhood areas of two Upazila instead of the same areas. We were informed about the Rengmitcha tribe, but not about their different language and tradition," he continued.
"As the Rengmitcha-speaking people have merged in the mainstream with the Mro tribe, all of them are now speaking the Mro language. Except the six, nobody else can speak it; some children may be able to understand, but not respond," he said.
"There are 90% dissimilarities and only 10% similarities between the Rengmitcha and Mro languages. Mro people cannot understand when they talk, but all of them frankly speak Mro as they merge with them," he added.
A team, on behalf of The Business Standard, visited a Rengmitcha para named Krangsi at Alikadam Upazila. It is located about three-and-a-half hours walking distance from Sadar Upazila Sadar to Tain Canal.
The Business Standard representative spoke with Tinwai Mro, the village's chief.
He said, "The para is more than 300 years old. At one time, all were belonging to the Rengmitcha family in the area, but later most left for India and Burma, some moved to another place of Alikadam and some died. As a result the number of Rengmitcha-speaking people has decreased."
"Now there are only seven Rengmitcha families out of twenty two families in this para, but none of them speak Rengmitcha – except three people," he said.
Singra Pro, a resident of the para told The Business Standard, he belongs to a Rengmitcha-speaking family, but cannot speak it without understanding some simple words.
However his father Mangpug Pro can still speak the language, he added. He gave the names of the six people who speak Rengmitcha.
The six are: Mangpung Mro (67), Konraw Mro (70), Konraw Mro (60) of Krangsi Para, Thoyie Lock Mro (55) of mensing para at Noapar Union, Rengpung Mro (65) of Waibot Para in Naikhyangchhari Upazila, and Mangwai Mro (63) of Sampla Para.
Two of them are women and the other four are men. All but one are over sixty years old.
Magpung Mro (67), resident of Krangsi Para said, "There were five Rengmitcha paras in this area when I was around 10-12, and each had 50-60 families. Someone coming from outside had to speak in our language at that time."
"Then some of us went to Burma, some to India. The rest merged with the mainstream of Mro people. In this way, our number is decreasing day by day," he added.
Regarding forgetting one's mother tongue, Mangpung Mro said, "Mro people used to laugh when we spoke Rengmitcha language, our children also were embarrassed and at one stage nobody wanted to use it anymore. As a result everyone starts forgetting their own language."
Asking about songs or music in this language, he said, "I have not heard a song in this language yet. I have never seen any of my grandparents sing in this language but listened to a few sports in rhythm."
Konraw Mro, another resident said she has two daughters and one son, but none can speak Rengmitcha. There is no one to speak with in their own language even in their own house.
"Always speaking Mro language outside does not build the habit of speaking the Rengmitcha language. Even if you want to say something in your own language, there is no one to answer and sometimes make you feel bad about it," she added.
Asking how to protect the language, these two Rengmitcha speakers told The Business Standard that sometimes they want to speak their mother tongue, but do not get any reply from others and this matter makes them lonely and helpless.
"We want to survive by speaking our own language but the new generation can no longer speak this language. Actually we do not know what action will be taken to save the language with a few people," they added.
However, Singyong Mro, another writer of Mro language and a member of Bandarban Zilla Parishad, considers Rengmitcha language-speaking people a separate tribe.
He told The Business Standard, "Almost everything except the language, is socially and culturally similar to Mro. They are getting married to Mro, as a result, they have forgotten their language. In fact, it is almost dead now."
They are now speaking Mro instead of Rengmitcha, even sometimes not wanting to say what they can in their own language due to hesitation, he continued.
When asked about the preservation of a language that is very scarce in terms of population, Singyong Mro said, "As Rengmitcha is an ancient language, we have held several meetings to protect the language and called them, too."
"The major issue is that they are no longer interested in it. We are also encouraging them to speak their own language and arrange a marriage with their Rengmitcha family – it would save them," he added.
When contacted by The Business Standard, David A. Peterson, a researcher in the language of Rengmitcha and a professor of Linguistics at Dartmouth College in the United States, said in an email, "The famous German anthropologist Lawrence Luflar, mentioned the existence of Rengmitcha tribe in the Tain Mouza area of Alikadam in his 1960s book 'The Mro.'"
"Since 1999, I have been researching Khumi, Mro and Rengmitcha languages in Bandarban. Many thought Rengmitcha was a dialect of Mro, but research has shown that it is a completely different language," he added.
"I went to Alikadam and worked with Rengmitcha speakers. I have seen their lifestyle very closely for a long time, their life, livelihood and social beliefs are close to Mro but linguistically they are completely different," he continued.
"However, the Rengmitcha language belongs to the Tibetan-Kuki Chinese language family, such as the: Khumi, Mro, Lusai, Bam, Khyang and Pangkhua languages," Peterson said.
He said that the Arakan and Chin states in Myanmar may have the language, but he has not found any proof of this. Meanwhile, Rengmitcha is found in Bangladesh.
Regarding the preservation of this language, Peterson said, "In order to preserve this endangered language, it is important to record their words as much as possible and we need more research. The new generation and their children should also be encouraged to speak this language."
"This is the only way to protect the language," the professor said.