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Could 2019 truly be the year of indigenous languages?

  • Published at 12:48 am February 21st, 2019
Indigenous Languages
File photo: Indigenous children feel extremely excited after receiving free textbooks written in their mother languages Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

The publication has been expected for quite some time by indigenous community researchers in order to proceed with effective initiatives to preserve indigenous languages in Bangladesh. Indigenous leaders too have welcomed the publication since it was discussed as an attempt to preserve the languages

Unesco has declared 2019 as the International Year of Indigenous Languages, and in the spirit of the theme, the International Mother Language Institute (IMLI) is determined to publish a three-part series on ethnic languages in Bangladesh this year.  

The publication has been expected for quite some time by indigenous community researchers in order to proceed with effective initiatives to preserve indigenous languages in Bangladesh. Indigenous leaders too have welcomed the publication since it was discussed as an attempt to preserve the languages.

The first part was published in the middle of last year, but it was not circulated because the authorities wanted Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to unveil it. After prolonged delays and reschedules, the IMLI has decided to publish the survey by itself. 

IMLI Director (Administration, Finance and Research) Kamal Uddin told the Dhaka Tribune that the first volume has already been printed and is ready to publish. The second volume is in the press, while the third volume is being proofread. 

He boldly proclaimed: “We are determined to publish all three volumes within this year.”

Additional Secretary, Sheikh Mohammad Kabedul Islam, a former director at IMLI, said the first volume could not be revealed as the institution wanted the prime minister to unveil it for the public. Kabedul left IMLI last August. 

IMLI said a 40-member committee comprised of anthropologists and linguists conducted the survey in 2015. The anthropologist team identified the indigenous groups and the linguists handled the languages. 

Researchers said the work’s completion will give recognition to many native languages and help identify languages which should be prioritized. The documentation will also reduce the risk of extinction.  

According to a report by Save the Children UK, Bangladesh Programme, a joint publication of Khagrachhari Hill District Council, Zabarang Kalyan Samity, and Save the Children, the Tripura, Chakma, Marma, Achik (Garo), Sadri (Oraon), and the Santal people still have their own languages, they are listed as endangered languages.

At least 14 languages, including Pangkhwa, Khumi, Sura, Sak, Malto are on the verge of extinction, according to Prof Sourav Sikder of the Dhaka University's Linguistics Department.

Prof Sourav, who also worked on the survey, told the Dhaka Tribune that they have identified 41 ethnic languages throughout Bangladesh. 

Among them, 35 languages were spoken by people categorized as “ethnic” by the government.

When asked about the delay of the research publication, he said the research team completed their work on time three years ago and he did not know why it was delayed. But he warned that IMLI’s project is a last-ditch effort, and its failure could only spell doom for indigenous languages and their speakers.

Indigenous language without the indigenous?

While indigenous leaders welcomed the publication, the slow progress also raised concerns. Several leaders also said that during the survey, their recommendations and advice were not accepted. 

Zabarang Kalyan Samity Executive Director, Mathura Bikash Tripura, said the research team did not contact them despite them having carried out research on the subject beforehand.

He said: “We only received invitations to workshop programs. It is difficult to make a compilation about indigenous languages accurately without including indigenous people. But as some top academics were involved, we hope it will be fairly free of mistakes.”

Mathura also said his group recommended setting up an Adivasi research cell in IMLI, but was never taken up on the offer.

Bangladesh Adivasi Forum General Secretary, Sanjeeb Drong, said Dalu, Rai, Koch, Sen, Borman, Kurukh, and Mushohor, among others, were borderline extinct. 

“Munda is endangered and so are Khasia, Achik (Garo), and Hajong. Many, whose mother tongue is Koch, are now speaking Garo,” the indigenous leader added.

Rabindranath Soren, president of Jatiya Adivasi Parishad, said minorities only receive promises from the government, but have seen no effective initiatives. 

He said: “The Adivasi Cultural Academy, and many beautiful architectural sites in Dinajpur, Naogaon, and Rajshahi, are either in a poor state or yet to be handed over to the authorities. This reflects how sincere they are about our development, and the preservation of our languages and culture.” 

In a statement, Unesco Director General Audrey Azoulay said: “Indigenous peoples have always expressed their desire for education in their own languages. Since 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages, the theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day will be indigenous languages as a factor in development, peace, and reconciliation.”

Using the Santal alphabet 

Several years ago, Language Movement researcher Badruddin Umar lamented the fact that the Santal language, largely spoken in Indian provinces adjacent to Bangladesh, is endangered in our country. 

Three years after his remarks, the Santal community remains conflicted over which alphabet to use. 

Some members of the Santal community, which numbers around 700,000 approximately, want modified Roman alphabets, while others want Bangla without any modification, and some prefer Ol Chiki, their own alphabet. 

Santal leader Rabindranath Soren said that as they have to live with the Bangla-speakers, the first option considered was unmodified Bangla alphabets, as this would make it easier for children to learn Bangla as well. 

Those who are in favour of modified Roman alphabets cite the Bible’s translation as the reason to add an element of sacredness to the language. Those who continue to practice the Hindu religion, want Ol Chiki, he added. 

Rabindranath said they have yet to figure out which alphabet to move forward with. He hopes to see the Ethnic Language Survey provide insight into this dilemma, and help them proceed.