How the system fails to recognize linguistic diversity in Bangladesh
Bangladesh is often described or perceived as ‘monolingual’, or in any case as a country where the overwhelming majority of the people are seen as having Bangla as their mother tongue. However, from a sociolinguistic perspective, the perceived homogeneity begins to break down if we consider the diversity of actual speech forms that vary significantly across social classes and geographical regions. There are also various ethnic minorities that have distinct languages.
However, the exact numbers of such groups or of the languages that they speak are yet to be established definitively. In fact, the constitution of Bangladesh does not really recognize the linguistic diversity of the country. Against this backdrop, there is a need to explore the factors that hinder the proper recognition and appreciation of linguistic diversity in Bangladesh.
Although, or perhaps because, linguistic nationalism played a key role in the emergence of Bangladesh as an independent nation, prevalent notions about language as typically found among educated Bangladeshis tend to be full of misconceptions and biases. For example, the very term language, or bhasha in Bangla, is often equated with written forms of speech. It is such an assumption that may be behind questions such as ‘Do you have your own language?’ which members of ethnic minorities are often faced with. Languages that do not have written forms are at best seen as ‘dialects’, or ‘sub-languages’, which is what the Bangla term for dialect means.
A related misconception is that every ‘language’ worth the name is expected to have its ‘own’ distinct script. Such undue expectation is one of the factors that have impeded efforts to give written forms to the languages spoken by minority ethnic groups, which are often faced with choices between ‘Bangla’ or other scripts. In this context, it may be pointed out that what is commonly known as Bangla script was not specifically associated with any single language in the remote past, and in any case it is also claimed by the Assamese as ‘their’ script.
The notion of ‘dialect’ is behind another form of denial of linguistic diversity. While around 98 percent of Bangladeshis are regarded as having ‘Bangla’ as their first language, there are actually many different regional varieties – or so-called ‘dialects’– of Bangla, some of which could be treated as separate languages as they are quite different to the point of being unintelligible to speakers of other varieties. Standard Bangla or the so called shuddho Bangla, on the other hand, is rarely used as the first language – i.e. spoken at home – by the majority of Bangladeshis. It is by disregarding this fact that the notion of Bangladesh as being a predominantly ‘monolingual’ country is sustained.
Another problematic area of language-related notions relate to the concepts of ‘mother tongue’ and ‘official language’, or matribhasha and rashtrobhasha in Bangla, which are often translated back into English as ‘mother language’ and ‘state language’ respectively. However, these reverse translations are rarely used by native English speakers themselves. Moreover, the term ‘mother language’ actually has a different pre-established meaning in historical linguistics, where it means ‘the mother (or ancestral form) of a language’, not ‘language spoken by the mother’. Anyway, the uncritical use of concepts such as ‘mother tongue’ and ‘official language’ is generally associated with faulty representation of the history of the language movement of 1952, which is often talked about as having been a struggle to exercise the right to ‘speak the language of our mother’.
In reality, the language movement of 1952 was not really about the right to speak in one’s mother tongue. Instead, it involved the demand for recognition of Bangla as one of the official languages of Pakistan. The confusion between the two concepts (‘mother tongue’ and ‘official language’), coupled with the fact that Bangla is the only national language recognized by the constitution of Bangladesh at present, leads to many undesirable perceptions and situations, e.g. when children belonging to ethnic minority are expected to write Bangla as their ‘mother tongue’ or matribhasha at school!
There have been no extensive studies on the languages and language varieties spoken in Bangladesh since the linguistic survey of British India led by Grierson a century ago. While an ethnolinguistic survey was carried out by the International Mother Language Institute recently, their focus was only on languages spoken by ethnic minority groups. The dialects of Bangla, or the nature and extent of multilingualism among ethnic minority groups
The ‘non-existent’ languages of Bangladesh
In Bangladesh, one often comes across the argument that since the constitution does not use the term ‘indigenous peoples’, there are no indigenous peoples in the country. By the same logic, one could also argue that there are no other languages in the country other than Bangla, since the constitution does not recognize them. It is indeed true that the constitution of Bangladesh at present does not acknowledge in any way the linguistic diversity that exists within the country. While it refers to Bangla as the ‘state language’, it makes no mention of whether there are other languages in Bangladesh, except that it gives de facto recognition of the use of English for administrative purposes at the very end of the document.
Article 23A of the constitution, titled ‘The culture of tribes, minor races, ethnic sects and communities’, which was inserted in 2011 and meant to be a response to demands by ethnic minorities that wanted to be recognized as ‘indigenous peoples’, has nothing on language. The added clause, the official English translation of which uses the terms ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ in the singular, makes no reference to language, and does not indicate in any way that it was formulated with the view to recognize, promote and protect the linguistic diversity found among the ‘tribes, minor races and ethnic sects and communities.’
Notwithstanding the lack of constitutional recognition of non-Bangla native languages of Bangladesh, the National Culture Policy of 2006 does talk about supporting ‘tribal languages’, albeit in a limited way, and it also provides for promotion of and research on different ‘dialects’ and languages such as Arabic, Sanskrit, Farsi and Pali. On the whole, however, there is more prominence given to the Bengali language and culture as constituting the ‘mainstream’, and there is also explicit reference to the need to make the ethnic minorities more familiar with and ‘immersed’ in the mainstream.
The National Education Policy 2010 too talks about promotion and development of the ‘languages and cultures of the indigenous and small ethnic groups’. However, while acknowledging the importance of ‘mother tongue’ of indigenous children in their education, the same policy speaks about helping these children ‘learn their mother tongue’ as opposed to helping them ‘learning in their mother tongue’.
Non-recognition of de facto multilingualism and diglossia
In keeping with the widespread non-recognition of linguistic diversity, the extent of diglossia (the use of two languages or language varieties by the same person or community) and multilingualism in Bangladesh is also rarely acknowledged or appreciated. But in reality, a large proportion of Bangladeshis routinely use different languages or language varieties, and are used to different degrees and types of multilingualism, the nature and extent of which may vary according to factors such as class, region, religious affiliation, gender and ethnicity.
There have been no extensive studies on the languages and language varieties spoken in Bangladesh since the linguistic survey of British India led by Grierson a century ago. While an ethnolinguistic survey was carried out by the International Mother Language Institute recently, their focus was only on languages spoken by ethnic minority groups. The dialects of Bangla, or the nature and extent of multilingualism among ethnic minority groups, were not covered by this survey. Moreover, the survey was conducted without any established guidelines regarding how to distinguish one ‘language’ or ‘dialect’ from another.
As recognized by sociolinguists for a long time, the meanings and relationships of terms like ‘language’ and ‘dialect’ are often highly ambiguous and contentious, and it is not always clear where one language ends, and another begins. The criteria are often arbitrary and may change over time, or may be conceived differently by different stakeholders at any given point in time. For example, Grierson listed languages spoken by some ethnic groups such as Hajong and Chakma as ‘dialects’ of Bangla. A similar view seems to persist in some quarters in Bangladesh even today, e.g. Banglapedia classifies Chakma under the category of ‘South Bengal dialects’, which include those spoken in Noakhali and Chittagong.
Even if we leave out languages spoken by ‘non-Bengali’ ethnic minorities of Bangladesh, there are different views as to how to classify the language varieties spoken by the ‘Bengalis’. There are different views in Bangladesh as to the number of Bangla ‘dialects’ spoken inside the country. Some are of the view that there are as many dialects as the number of ‘greater districts’ that once existed in the country. It is along this line of thinking that the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh reportedly identified up to 16 regional dialects of Bangla. On the other hand, it is not uncommon to find linguists (particularly from abroad) who consider Rangpuri, Sylheti, and Chittagonian as separate languages.
The actual forms and degrees of linguistic diversity and multilingualism in different contexts in Bangladesh may vary considerably. In schools and government offices, the form of multilingualism to be found most commonly would involve Standard Bangla as the dominant language variety. However, there are also specific contexts – e.g. English medium schools and universities and even some state institutions – in which English has the dominant position. In the market place, on the other hand, local dialects of Bangla may function as the dominant form. But on a limited scale, there are also multilingual environments involving non-Bangla languages in the dominant position locally, e.g. Chakma in Rangamati, or Marma in Bandarban.
Promoting linguistic pluralism
It is clear that if we want to recognize the full extent of linguistic diversity and multilingualism that exist in Bangladesh, and promote pluralism, we need to ensure greater common understanding of the phenomena under consideration in several key spheres such as academia, media and the policy arena. There is a need for comprehensive surveys and studies on the degrees and types of multilingualism that exist in the country, and could be accommodated in the context of education. A comprehensive framework for discussion and analysis, and an explicit language policy to guide future course of action, could also be useful.
The author is an academic anthropologist turned development professional, who currently teaches part-time at BRAC University.