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A proper tribute

  • Published at 10:38 am February 21st, 2019
Language binds us all MEHEDI HASAN

Bangla isn’t the only language that struggled for emancipation

I met two non-Banali students from the University of Dhaka on International Mother Language Day 15 years ago. With hearts draped in the angst of losing their own mother tongues, they came to pay their tributes to the language martyrs of 1952. While I was talking to them, they told me that they were saddened because they were not able to save their own mother tongues.

They did not have the training or skills to do so. Unfortunately, there was also no expert who could help them preserve their languages. Being a Bangali, who takes pride in his language and culture, and a student of linguistics, I felt the need to document endangered languages. But, at that time, I did not have the training or skills required to carry out the serious task of language documentation and revitalization.

Studying linguistics at Dhaka University was not promising enough for what I wanted to do. In the spring of 2006, I saw a call for applications to participate in a language documentation workshop, which was to be conducted by a documentary linguist David A Peterson of Dartmouth College. I applied to participate in a two-month-long workshop. A part of that workshop was to go to Bandarban with other participants to learn how to document languages. Seeing the diversity of languages and experiencing the adventure of fieldwork, I fell in love with documentary linguistics.

In 2007, when David asked me to collect oral texts of Hyow (“Khyang” is the exonym), an endangered language spoken by around 4,000 people in the CHT, I immediately agreed. While collecting Hyow oral texts, it was hard for me during the first few months to get along with the villagers because of the mistrust between the indigenous people and the settler Bangalees in the CHT. With the help of local friends, I gradually built a good relationship with the language community. Unfortunately, David ran out of funds. The intermittent text collection of Hyow ended in 2008. There was no opportunity to continue the work.

Meanwhile, I completed my BA Honours and MA in linguistics. Being the eldest son of a low middle-class family, I had to take a job as a teacher at an English medium school. I thought my dream of documenting an endangered language had come to an end. In 2013, when I was teaching at a private university in Dhaka, I decided to go abroad to be trained in language documentation. In the beginning of 2013, there was a PhD position open at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore. I applied for the position and was awarded the NTU Research Scholarship that year to complete my PhD program.

At NTU, I had the opportunity to learn how to document a language using modern equipment. My supervisor, Alexander Robertson Coupe, was a documentary linguist himself. He had been working in the Nagaland of Northeast India for 22 years. With his guidance, I was all set to collect Hyow data.

During my 14 months of fieldwork, I had to go to remote areas of the CHT. The short fieldwork to Tindu in Bandarban was the most challenging one. During that trip, I barely managed to escape a boat accident. 

When I returned to Singapore from the final fieldwork, I had to finish processing the data using software in order to do acoustic analysis and develop Hyow. It took me more than six months to take acoustic readings, finish the corpu,s and develop a lexical database, from where I have produced a trilingual (Hyow-English-Bangla) dictionary. In 2018, I successfully defended my PhD dissertation. Currently, I am working with an international publisher to publish it as a monograph. 

A couple of other Bangladeshis are being trained as documentary linguists abroad. Most of them have been inspired and guided by David and his work. David himself has contributed greatly to the documentation of Khumi and Mro. At present, he is documenting the moribund language of Bangladesh, Rengmitca. I have had opportunities too to work in this project.

Regretfully, Bangla, which has the seventh largest number of speakers in the world, does not even have a corpus. When a group of computational linguists working at NTU asked me for a reference of Bangla corpus, I was embarrassed to admit that we did not have one. I was frustrated knowing that Bangla was missing out on being included in various research opportunities around the world. In addition to the absence of a corpus, the current Bangla grammar taught at different levels is very old and prescriptive, which is why one is likely to find a lot of outdated analysis in the Bangla dictionary produced by the Bangla Academy. 

Language documentation helps a student of linguistics understand the intricate nature of a language and helps him/her become a skilled linguist. Unfortunately, none of the universities in our country train students in language documentation. As a result, there is hardly any real contribution to the development and maintenance of Bangla as well as other languages spoken in Bangladesh. Institutions like the Bangla Academy and the International Mother Language Institution require skilled manpower (properly trained linguists) to make proper use of government funds and make proper plans in order to ensure linguistic and cultural diversity in Bangladesh.

A proper tribute to the language martyrs is only possible by ensuring the use of Bangla in all spheres of our daily lives, producing textbooks in Bangla for tertiary students, producing grammar for indigenous languages, and allowing indigenous children to learn in their mother tongues. 

Muhammad Zakaria teaches at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.