by Paromita Haque
Bangla is the only language that people have died for, but now it is dying itself. But one Sydney Language school is making sure that doesn’t happen.
On a sleepy Sunday morning, nestled in the suburbs of Western Sydney, a local public school comes alive with the chants of children learning Bangla.
It’s a stark contrast to the busy streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. With its concrete walls plastered with faded posters screaming “English Medium Enrolment” and “Do you want to study in Australia?”, it is no wonder that the Bangla language is slowly fading.The one thing that both Australia and Bangladesh seem to have in common is a penchant for the English language.
In their 2013 paper, “Cultural Imperialism in English Medium Schools: A Critical Insight”, Dr. Muhammed Haque & Tahmina Akter maintain that the popularity of English Medium Schools (EMS) in Bangladesh – schools that teach based on an English Syllabus – promote “cultural imperialism”, which must “be made aware (of), and gradually resisted or else there will be severe repercussions in the long run,”
“Resistance against hegemonic cultural dominance is significant because the history of the Bangla language and Bangladeshi cultural heritage are at stake, which are often synonymously correlated.”
No one is aware of this more than Rokeya Ahmad, Principal of Campbelltown Bangla School.
From a cramped class of about 15 students in the early 2000’s to now providing a formal syllabus, multiple classes and extracurricular activities in 2018, Campbelltown Bangla School is determined to revive the Bangla language in the second-generation Bengali- Australian children of Sydney.
“Bangla School, in its initial years, had limited resources and funds. We didn’t have many teachers and those who could come weren’t always regular. There are a lot of responsibilities outside of school hours, which most people could not commit to. And we didn’t have the numbers; there was a severe lack of interested parents willing to enrol their children.” says Ahmad.
“In the midst of all these challenges, we still have managed to run Bangla School for fifteen years every Sunday. For two hours, children will learn Bangla, then music and dance for an hour. This is not an easy job. So, a huge success is the fact that we’ve been able to hold onto the school and its message.”
But things are starting to look up. On the 12th of February 2018, the Australian Federal Government passed a bill recognising International Mother Language Day in Australia.
IMLD or “Ekushey (21st) February”, as it is known to Bengali people all over the world, celebrates the fateful day in 1952 when four students from the University of Dhaka were shot and killed during a peaceful protest against the Pakistani Government’s enforcement of Urdu as the sole national language.
In Bangladesh, it is heavily celebrated, with Dhaka University honouring the martyrs with a statue and the Shaheed Minar, one of the most recognisable buildings of Bangladesh, being built in honour of the lives lost in the war.
2018 marks the first time that the Bengali Community of Australia can celebrate their mother language officially in their new home.
“The fact that Bangla has been acknowledged in Parliament and around Australia is a huge achievement. But this is just a start for us,” says Rumana Siddique, a teacher at Campbelltown Bangla School.
“…we need to think about what we can do, and what our responsibilities entail. The Australian government has shown us a lot of support, but now we must think of…how much further we can go now because of it.”
Although it only receives $3000-$4000 yearly from the Australian Government, Campbelltown Bangla School has bloomed in its 15 years of operation.
“Although we have limited resources, we have achieved a great deal- including a structured syllabus. Starting from Kindergarten, we assess how much history, culture and language each year level should be capable of understanding to their fullest ability… And this structure will become a precedent for future generations to make an even more structured, formalised form of teaching, ” says Ahmad.
Campbelltown Bangla School bases their syllabus on the Bangla Medium Schools in Bangladesh, “but of a higher quality,” adds Ahmad.
Bangla Medium Schools (BMS) are notoriously underfunded and thus cannot compete with the appeal of EMS, according to Ahmad.
“…the standard of education (in BMS) has severely decreased. It is also difficult to get into. You need to take an entrance exam, then provide a generous donation. So, the reward you are getting for investing in this kind of education is limited. So, parents think: for a significantly less amount, I can send my children to an EMS, where they’ll receive a better education and skillfully learn English.”
“…if I were to say it straight, it’s because the government monitors these things and have decided that Bangladesh’s history and culture is not as significant,” says Islam, “If we were making our Bangla syllabus as strong as our English one – then there wouldn’t be a problem of our language fading but the fact of the matter is it’s not happening in Bangladesh.”
But Ahmad and her teachers are determined to fill the gap.
“We bring in textbooks of Bangla literature, the alphabet, and other such materials. We also emphasise greatly on history, specifically days of great cultural significance such as the Genocide of 1971 and Bangla Language Movement of 1952,” says Ahmad,
“We also encourage a great deal of storytelling; this improves both oral and listening skills. All this is done to ensure their vocabulary skills progress greatly, as well as their ability to recognise the influence and impact of Bengali culture and history”
“We have such a rich culture, so many folklores originated within Bangla- songs, dance- and if we don’t nurture this, we won’t learn any of this and it will become very difficult to communicate with our family and the next generation,” says Millie Islam, another teacher at the Bangla School.
“There is also a sense of belonging; we need to be able to be a part of this community, which will make everyone happy.”
It has indeed made the children very happy. Alveera, a year 5 student at the school, excitedly recounts her progress;
“…it’s really really fun to sing, and then- it’s like my voice gets a lot better and in future, it’ll hopefully improve a lot”
Year 7 student Alisha says that performing for Bangla School has helped her to get over her stage fright and has enhanced her appreciation of her country.
“I actually never knew that our culture was this rich and this colourful and bright.”
Although the school has progressively improved since its early days, there is still a lot to be done.
“There’s roughly a population of 10,000 Bengalis in Sydney but when you compare that ratio to the number of children enrolled…it’s really frustrating to see the lack of dedication,” laments Ahmad.
“Our attitude is a huge obstacle…(Bengalis) don’t place Bangla in high importance.”
“…learning one’s mother language is extremely important because it is linked to history. If a child doesn’t understand their own history or origins, then there will come a point where they can no longer relate to their parents or grandparents,” says Siddique. She advocates for kids and parents alike to continue to practice Bangla in whatever way possible, whether it be at Bangla School or even at home.
“…one thing that is constantly overlooked is proper pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. We’re too flexible on this because we automatically assume children born here will not be able to grasp it, but there should be a limit to these flexibilities because once a child doesn’t learn something correctly, they will continue making the same mistake over and over,
“If parents and students alike are aware of these small matters…it is possible to learn Bangla completely fluently, even for those born here, as is the case here [at Bangla School],”
“Bangla is the only language that’s ever been fought for, we went through a violent war to get it recognised”
The students of the school are well aware of the role they play in nurturing the Bangla language in the future, making sure to honour the pain and sacrifice it cost to attain.
“..the responsibility comes from us,” states Alveera, “…when the responsibility comes from us we don’t get nervous at all… we get confident, and that’s how (Bangla can become) secure to us.”