• Tanvir Shahjahan

The Bengali Language

Updated: Apr 2, 2019


/ˈlaŋɡwɪdʒ/ (noun)

1.    the method of human communication, either spoken or written, consisting of the use of words in a structured and conventional way

Languages are something we give very little thought to, the importance they hold to our identity is sometimes overlooked. If you’re reading this you are able to read and understand English, this can be a big or small understanding, but nevertheless an understanding. In some places around the world there are languages that are at risk of disappearing, this could even be in our lifetime. If you look at Krymchak it was recording as having around 200 native speakers or even Ainu, the language of the Ainu people, a group in Japan which is spoken by only 10 native speakers, all of whom are elderly. When a language dies, a part of the cultural diversity in the world dies with it. There are an estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world and over a third of them are endangered. 

On the 17th November 1999 UNESCO (The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) announced International Mother Language Day; it has since been observed every year since 2000, however it was only formally recognized by the UN in 2008, for this reason 2008 was the International Year of Languages. The day is observed to promote the importance of linguistic and cultural diversity as well as multilingualism, more importantly it is a day to recognise the Bengali Language Movement, to recognise the sacrifice and the trials faced to make Bengali an official language. 

The Bengali Language Movement was a political movement in what was known back then as East Bengal (modern-day Bangladesh), it took place in 1952 with the aim to recognise the Bengali language as an official language of the country, this would mean it could be spoken in offices and schools, the reason there was such a pressure on this was so that they could enable the survival of the language; this would be in through the use and recording of the language in government affairs, education and mainstream media.

After the partition of India in 1947, the Dominion of Pakistan was formed, there were various ethnic and linguistic groups within Pakistan. There was even a section that was disconnected, towards the east side of India there was East Bengal which was later renamed to East Pakistan in 1956. They mainly had a Bengali population even then in 1948 the Government of the Dominion of Pakistan decided to have Urdu as the sole national language this sparked widespread protests among the Bengali-speaking majority of East Bengal. Due to rising tensions and mass discontent with the new law, the government went on to outlaw public meetings and rallies. The students of the University of Dhaka and other political activists defied the law and organised a protest on the 21stFebruary 1952. The movement reached its peak when police killed student demonstrators on that day. The deaths provoked extensive civil unrest which led onto years of conflict until 1956 when the central government conceded defeat and granted official status to the Bengali language. The Language Movement massively promoted the need of a Bengali national identity in East Bengal and later East Pakistan, it went on to become a forerunner to Bengali nationalist movements. In Bangladesh, 21stFebruary is observed as Language Movement Day, a national holiday and it continues to serve a reminder of the importance of independence, language and identity.

"Mother language is what a baby child communicates for the first time with mother and father. It is a language a person never forgets, wherever that person lives. The mother language is a prism that determines the first notions of the world to a baby child. The umbilical cord between mother tongue and thought is inseparable. It is the mother tongue that represents thought, culture and heritage of an individual."

- Barrister Harun ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva

So, you’re probably still thinking, what’s the use of Bengali, I don’t blame you if I’m honest, you most probably live in a country where English is widely spoken, and Bengali is a minority language. First of all, Bengali is the seventh most spoken language in the world and is the second most spoken language in India so if you learn it there are plenty of people for you to speak to. Secondly, there are studies which show that students who have initially started a “home” language tend to pick up other languages more easily, they also tend develop better language skills later on in life. Learning a language doesn’t start at school it starts at home and in the individuals mother tongue; this allows young children to connect to their culture and history. I’ve often heard the older generation say that we neglect our mother language to learn English and another foreign language in school, English obviously has a lot of value but does the value of learning it outweigh the value of our ability to read, write and speak in our mother tongue. Tough question, but the answer is irrelevant because here in the UK children have until they turn 4 or 5 to get a strong understanding of their mother language. Not knowing our mother tongue well enough could have an impact, it could be far greater than what you might have imagined, I’ve outlined 3 of the most prominent reasons to teach your children their mother tongue.

- It helps in cognitive as well as intellectual development: A child able to speak their mother tongue well has better cognitive development as well as better intellectual development.

- It helps in language learning: Incomplete or inadequate skills in the first language make learning another language difficult for the child. Concepts and literacy skills picked up when learning the mother tongue can be extrapolated when learning other languages. The presence of more than one language at a young age is a strong predictor of a child’s overall linguistic ability.

- It helps you connect with your culture and people: As mentioned before languages keep our cultural heritage alive. Cultural information read or heard in a different language than the one it was intended to be in can lead to a loss of meaning, impact and context; this makes it a lot more difficult to understand and identify with.

It has also been observed that children, who have grown up in an environment where their mother tongue is not that commonly used tend to find it difficult to have a deeper and a more meaningful conversation with their grandparents or with other elders in their family, who do not speak English (that well) this means that their mother tongue is a critical tools in connecting with their roots and loved ones.

Two books that you can use to learn Bengali are Colloquial Bengali & Teach Yourself Bengali; but let’s not forget the plethora of resources available online and on your phone. 

I’m proud to be Bengali, that’s why I started BSynergetic, it was initially a platform aimed at Bengalis, to provide both opportunities to succeed as well as opportunities to learn about our heritage and connect with other Bengalis. Unfortunately, the response to it wasn’t great, the audience was limited and not everyone was open to it, so I pivoted, I decided to look towards my religion and saw the importance of one unified body for all Muslims regardless of background. It became a platform to connect and create more opportunities to take us to greater heights and make more change the way we want to see it. I do however one day in the future come back to the idea of helping push Bengali culture.

If you look at the young people with Bengali heritage today, a growing number of them aren’t able to speak, read or write in Bengali. It’s sad to see a part of our history almost disappear, the struggles that the people of Bangladesh faced during the language movement enough should push us to protect and share our language. I didn’t even know much about the language movement until recently, I think a lot of people are like I was and ignorant to the history, there are others however those that have learnt the history and are making an effort to teach others. 

So, the point of this, I guess to speak on and highlight the importance of our language and the struggles our ancestors went through to give us the basic right of speaking Bengali. We need to acknowledge and be thankful so as not to let that go to waste. It’s in our hands now if you have young children in your family or you go on to have children of your own teach them your mother tongue, the language of your ancestors because it’s the connection to your history because as Theodore Roosevelt said "The more you know about the past, the better prepared you are for the future"

I am currently in Medellin, Colombia and they speak Spanish here, it has been about a month and I am still struggling to perfect my Spanish but looking around at how we interact and how others interact with non-English speakers is upsetting. We almost expect them to be able to speak Spanish and I’ve realised the Colombians make a far greater effort to speak English than some of the “foreigners” do when it comes to speaking Spanish. I’m going to do another post explaining how I ended up here and my experiences so far so look out for that.

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