Learning Bangla: Ami Bangla Sikkhi

Posted on February 29, 2012

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Bangladesh means Land of the Bangla Speakers, and in this country, speaking Bangla is as much a way of expressing your national identity as it is a way of expressing yourself.

Last Tuesday, February 21, marked a particularly important day for the Bengali identity and language – International Mother Language Day. Although it is an international day, declared by UNESCO in 1999, I’d never celebrated it before. As an English speaker, I’ve always taken my ubiquitous Mother Language for granted.

But in Bangladesh, Amar Ekushey has particularly special meaning – it is the anniversary commemorating the deaths of Bengali martyrs killed during the 1952 Language Movement, which was fought to establish Bangla as a national language in then East Pakistan.

I spent my morning navigating the crowded streets around Dhaka University in awe at the thousands who had come to pay their respects to those killed, by laying a wreath at the Shaheed Minar (Martyr’s Monument). The queue started about two kilometres away from the monument itself and took more than two hours from start to finish.

Bangla is actually the sixth most spoken language in the world (fifth if you don’t count all the dialects that make up Hindi). Despite this huge number of speakers, geographically, the Bengali language is only spoken officially in Bangladesh and West Bengal (a state of India).

When India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947, the area now known as Bangladesh was made into East Pakistan – the idea being to create a Muslim and a Hindu nation on the Indian subcontinent. But when the Pakistani Government declared that Urdu would be the official language of West and East Pakistan, riots broke out in Dhaka. At a protest on February 21, 1952, the Pakistani army opened fire on the group. The exact number of the death toll is disputed because of claims that army officials concealed the bodies, but the moment marked a decisive point in Bangladesh’s history and the centrality of Bengali to the national identity. For a bit more background on how the events of the Language Movement unfolded sixty years ago, have a look at this article in the Daily Star.

Bangla evolved, like Hindi and Urdu, from Sanskrit. It also takes words from Hindi and Urdu, along with Farsi and English. In my office, for example, we say “amra meeting korbo” when we are planning to have a meeting – if there is a Bangla word for meeting, I have never heard it uttered. Similarly, you’d say “amar daktar lagbe” when you need a Doctor. The infiltration of foreign words into Bengali society tells an interesting story about the ideas the people here have adopted from elsewhere. In fact, so many long-winded, often business-related English words have drifted into the Bangla language that one recent court ruling banned “Banglish” phrases from being used in domestic media.

As much as it seems extreme and probably oshombhob, impossible, to uphold a ruling banning Banglish, I respect the way that the people here value their mother language and have fought to protect it. There are so many beautiful idiosyncrasies in the words and phrases that capture the Bengali spirit. At a poetry reading last week, hosted by the Alliance Francaise, I had the chance to sit still for two hours and bask in the rhythm of Bangla. In a country where nearly half of the population remain illiterate, the beauty of this language can be found most easily in everyday spoken usage – the soundscape of the language seems to say something about the people themselves and their land of rivers. When Bangla is spoken, the rushing aspirations and clipped vowels perfectly reflect the chorus of a bubbling brook.

Bangla hasn’t been an easy language to learn, kintu ami cheshta kori – but I try – because speaking in Bangla while I’m here is like writing a song of hope for everything this Land of Bangla Speakers can become.

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Posted in: Language, Travel, Writing