(Still) learning Bangla: an interview with My Bangla Diary | আমি বাংলা শিখছি: আমার বাংলা ডাইরি

Posted on January 12, 2014


This is a cross-post taken from the terrific blog, My Bangla Diary আমার বাংলা ডাইরি, which charts the joys and challenges of learning Bengali. It’s definitely worth checking out, as it provides lots of tools for learning Bangla – my favourite is the English-Bangla translation project of Winne the Pooh!

I wanted to share it here on my blog too because doing this interview was a wonderful chance to reflect on one of my favourite foreign languages and return to one of my favourite topics… Thank you to My Bangla Diary for giving me the chance to share my story so far!


When did you first travel to Bangladesh and India? 

I travelled to India in 2009, which was my first experience of South Asia. I remember returning home feeling more inspired by the possibilities of life and the craziness of the universe than I ever had before. Two years later, I accepted a position in Bangladesh with a small NGO, and the rest is history!

When did you first encounter Bangla?

Before I was in Bangladesh, I was in China, and so I was studying Chinese. As a result, I didn’t study ANY Bangla before arriving in the Desh, but I began intensive language lessons in my first two weeks there, and continued private tutoring several times a week for the rest of my time living there.

What do you feel about Bangla?

I love it! Bangladesh means Land of the Bangla Speakers, and I love that speaking Bangla is as much a way of expressing your national identity as it is a way of expressing yourself. Learning Bangla has been one of the most wonderful linguistic experiences I’ve had because native speakers have been so willing to help me speak and patiently listen to me stutter through sentences like a child! As a writer, I whole-heartedly respect the power of the word, and I think Bangla is a pure, melodic language whose speakers embodies the significance of that. I’ve written about my love of the Bangla language here.

How good is your Bangla?

It was much better when I was living in Bangladesh! Now, I don’t get much opportunity to practice it, and so my fluency is much less than it used to be. Still, I’m always amazed at how much comes flooding back to me when I hear someone else speaking Bangla, so I live in hope that when I return to Bangladesh, I’ll remember it all!

How have you learned Bangla? What materials have you used?

I had a wonderful tutor, and she and I would spend a lot of time just speaking to build my verbal skills. She also made me flashcards and prepared written notes to help me study on my own. Homework and rote memorisation were quite essential at the beginning to build up my vocabulary. Undoubtedly, the most important part of learning Bangla was getting to practise it everyday.

What do you find difficult about learning Bangla?

I didn’t start learning to read or write until about six months after beginning to learn the spoken language. I’m glad I did that because it meant I could just concentrate on making myself understood when I first arrived, but it also meant that writing and reading came much more slowly, and were much harder to use confidently.

What part has Bangladesh played in your life?

Bangladesh has changed my life in ways that even now I’m only just beginning to realise. In Bangladesh, you are constantly reminded to be grateful for what you’ve got, to move on quickly from any problems, and to keep on trying harder to build something better than what there is now. Though I left with just a small suitcase (a tiny portion of the three that I lugged over there), Bangladesh grabbed my heart in such a way that I am sure I will be back there one day or another. Bangladesh affirmed for me that if there is no hope, there is nothing. Every day, people there wake up without a roof over their head, without a breakfast to eat, without clean water to drink. But they keep on going. It’s that combination of aspiration and resilience that makes me so grateful I had the chance to spend some time in Bangladesh. I miss my friends there so much and I hope I will return some day soon ~ আমি আবার আসব |

How is Bangladesh connected to your professional life? How is it connected to your personal life?

It is connected to both. I work in international development, and that is how I first came to be in Bangladesh. But my time there was so special and the people were so wonderful, that I consider it to be another home, albeit one I haven’t visited for a little while.

Do you have friends and contacts from one particular community within the total of Bangla speakers?

I guess a lot of my friends are from Dhaka, because that’s where I was based. But because of my role in Bangladesh I was very lucky and got to mix with lots of people from many different communities.

What’s your favourite Bengali dish?

Khichuri! No question about it.  One of my colleagues in Bangladesh shared her recipe with me, which I’ve saved on my blog here.

And finally… what advice can you give for those beginning to learn Bangla?

Be patient! Learning Bangla is the chance to learn the language of a wonderful group of people from a beautiful part of the world. What better way to show your respect for their culture and community than by studying their beautiful language. And use the opportunity to learn first-hand the words of brilliant Bengali writers like Kazi Nazrul Islam and Rabindranath Tagore.

Posted in: Language, Travel