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Saving our indigenous languages  

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: August 19, 2019 22:15:49


The global movement to recognise the rights of the 370 million indigenous peoples over the last few decades has not been in vain. The movements were generally met with lukewarm response from many countries. They showed reluctance to recognise the cultures and traditions of their respective indigenous peoples. In such an adverse global situation, the intervention by the United Nations General Assembly in 1994 finally resulted in the monumental decision to celebrate a day fully dedicated to the cause of the world's indigenous peoples.   Slated for observing on August 09 every year, the day was called International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. Like all the UN member-states, the day is also observed in Bangladesh. Although the observance began humbly, Bangladesh nowadays sees pageant-filled celebration of the day. Apart from showcasing the different aspects of the country's indigenous cultures through rallies and assemblage, the day witnesses seminars, symposiums and discussions on the current state of the indigenous people's life in Bangladesh. Apart from the large cities including the capital, these events are also held in the pockets of indigenous peoples in Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) and other areas in the country.

 This year's theme of the day is 'Indigenous Languages'. According to an official estimate, Bangladesh is home to 50 indigenous communities speaking nearly 40 languages. Apart from a few, most of the languages are not widely spoken and some not at all. A number of these mother tongues are used only in spoken form. Their alphabet and written forms have long been lost. Experts working on small ethnic groups in Bangladesh believe scores of less spoken and unused indigenous languages face threats of extinction. They have thus laid special emphasis on preserving the written forms of these threatened languages, as well as encouraging people to use them in their day-to-day communication. The task should begin at the primary levels of school. In order to help the major indigenous languages survive, the government has embarked on a programme to print school textbooks in these languages. As part of it, the relevant ministry has already printed primary-level books in Chakma, Tripura and Marma languages. Although most of the students have expressed their willingness to study in their native languages as they feel intimate with them, the specially printed books are hardly used by the teachers. The teachers cite the reason of lack of training in imparting lessons to child students through these books for their avoiding them. At many remote indigenous schools the books are found lying dumped.

As the country's experts on indigenous communities observe, the government programme should not have fallen through in this miserable way. They agree with the teachers' grievances. Scientific training in imparting lessons in a new language should be viewed as a sine qua non. Moreover, in so far as the age of the students is concerned, here primary students, the child learners also need modern and advanced language-learning techniques to acquire skill in the written form of a language. Without properly addressing this drawback, the project of introducing indigenous language-based curricula is feared to remain elusive.     

A number of problems used to persist in the other segments of indigenous life in the past. A major one relates to the general mainlanders' fuzzy idea about the country's indigenous peoples. However, due mainly to the relentless activism of the rights groups, the perception of the general mainlanders regarding indigenous communities has long begun undergoing changes. The media, both print and electronic, played a major role in this attitudinal change. A sizeable number of people from the 50 indigenous communities in the country have voluntarily got assimilated into the mainstream population --- in sectors like government jobs and academic activities. The indigenous youths continue to enroll increasingly in the higher educational institutions in the country's cities, especially in Dhaka.

Meanwhile, amid socio-economic adversities, the larger indigenous communities have dedicated themselves to revive their native language and culture. Prominent of them include the Chakma, Tripura and Marma communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. In the northeastern region of greater Sylhet, educated youths from the Manipuri community have long been trying to bring about a literary renaissance of sorts by using the written form of Meithei. The language has branched out from Manipuri. Unlike those in the other major ethnic groups, a section of Manipuri youths has been found engrossed in serious literary activities. They write in Meithei; and are members of the Manipuri Sahitya Sangsad. Under its patronage, the young Manipuri authors write poetry, short stories and fictions. As a proof of their enthusiasm, these indigenous writers put up a book stall at the Bangla Academy Ekushey Book Fair a few years ago.

According to experts, languages should not be allowed to die out. But they are dying, especially those spoken by the near-extinct communities. The present world's indigenous people living in 90 countries and territories speak more than 7000 languages. They represent myriads of distinctive cultures. The distressing truth is that lately an indigenous language is completely disappearing from earth every two weeks. With the death of a language, mankind is losing a vast store of rich heritages, traditional wisdom and practices --- and knowledge of tangible and intangible realities that shape life. A global movement to preserve all least used languages ought to start without delay. Bangladesh can take pride in its existing indigenous languages. The spoken form of a few of them is still considered highly vibrant and representative of a colourful past. The country cannot remain detached from the worldwide language-saving campaigns.

 

shihabskr@ymail.com

 

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