How a Sydney community school is reviving a language that is being shunned in its own motherland
By: Mansib Ahmad
“Six thousand languages exist in the world today, according to the United Nations. But 43 per cent – almost half of those – are endangered languages,” Matt Thistlethwaite says in Parliament during his speech about International Mother Language Day and its importance to the Bangladeshi community. Several weeks later, on 12 March 2018, during a discussion on education reforms, academics urge policymakers to remove the stereotype that Bangla is not a sophisticated language – in the very country that started the Language Movement.
As enrolments into Bangla Medium Schools in Bangladesh plummet, a Western Sydney language school is thriving to keep Bangla alive. Just over sixty years since it was officially recognised as a language, academics pose the question: is Bangla dying?
Part One: The Language Movement: Who and Why
Standing at a podium overlooking thousands of Bengalis, on 27 January 1952, governor general of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) Khawaja Nazimuddin declared, “From now on Urdu and only Urdu will be spoken.”
Anticipating the anger this statement would cause, the government imposed Section 144: a decree which prohibited the gathering of four or more Bengalis at a time. In defiance of this law, students from the University of Dhaka began a peaceful protest on the morning of 21 February 21, 1952. As police and army tanks barricaded the University, students became more and more vocal until police resorted to opening fire. A number of students were killed, including prominent figures of the movement, Abdul Barkat and Rafiq Udin Ahmed, who are now considered martyrs of Bangladesh.
Although Bangla was not officially recognised until 1956, Bengalis still weren’t able to speak it freely until after the Genocide of 1971. The Language Movement is therefore commemorated as the first stepping stone to Bangladesh’s independence, heavily influencing Bengali literature, culture and art.
In 1999, UNESCO recognized 21 February as ‘International Mother Language Day’ in honour of Bangladesh’s struggle to keep their mother tongue, a battle which is still being fought.
Part Two: The Education System Showdown: English Medium vs Bangla Medium
Bangladesh has two different schooling systems: English Medium and Bangla Medium.
English Medium Schools (EMS) are private schools which were first introduced during British rule in the Indian subcontinent. EMS’ education focuses on English and Britain’s history.
Bangla Medium Schools (BMS) are district schools funded by the government. They are heavily under resourced and under managed. These schools emphasise on Bengali culture through language, history and arts. There are only a few BMS in every town, forcing schools to severely limit their enrolment capabilities.
On March 12, 2018, during a discussion panel entitled ‘Higher Education, Research and Intellectual Pursuits in Mother Tongue’, special advisor and moderator, Dr Rizwanul Islam advised Bangladesh’s education reformers to place emphasis on Bangla in higher education
“…It’s high time to take care of Bangla as a language of necessity,” he said.
The panel discussed the damaging stereotype of Bangla being unsophisticated, and how it has impacted the enrolment rates in Bangla Medium Schools.
A paper released by Hiroshima University in 2017, titled Proliferating English-Medium Schools in Bangladesh and Their Educational Significance Among the “Clientele” interviewed parents, teachers and students who attended EMS to understand their worldview. An “overwhelming majority” of interviewees believed going to an EMS secured their future while BMS had “appalling conditions” and “little job employment opportunities” because graduates only spoke one language.
The rise in popularity of EMS has placed English on the forefront in a nation which spilled the blood of three million people in order to gain the independence to speak its mother language.
Part Three: Campbelltown Bangla School: its vision, teachers and students
On the other side of the globe, in the Western Sydney suburb of Campbelltown, a crowd of students, teachers and parents gather on a Sunday morning to attend Language School.
Campbelltown Bangla School is in its fifteenth year of running. Starting off with only ten students, it now has six times the amount – and it is still growing. It is a testament of the willingness the Australian-Bangladesh community encompasses to successfully teach the second generation of children the importance of their mother tongue, despite living in a Western society.
Rokeya Ahmad started at Bangla School fifteen years ago as a teacher and has been the principal for the last five. “The vision I have with Bangla School is to have my own children learn and respect Bengali literature, culture and arts the same way I have. I wish for them to develop the same passion, intelligence and devotion I did.”, adding that the school allows her the “opportunity to speak, practice and teach Bangla to local communities.”
Every Sunday morning students arrive for lessons which begin at ten am sharp. From the moment they enter the school, all communication is done in Bangla, even amongst peer groups. For two hours, students learn the phonetics, vocabulary and grammar of the Bangla language, understanding how to read and write it effectively. Then, they engage with Bangladesh’s history, recounting stories of war, or researching prominent Bengali figures. After this class, students then attend a music class for another hour. During this time, they learn chords of traditional instruments such as the esraj and sing songs which are culturally significant and relevant to Bangladesh, like Grisho Bhorsha.
“Often, I’ve seen children who are completely unable to speak Bangla start speaking conversationally once they have attended a few music lessons. They then feel comfortable to speak even more Bangla,” says Ahmad.
Nashita Ahmed, currently enrolled in year four, acknowledges Bangla School’s role in helping her understand Bengali culture. “I now know about how important my history is and how I’m doing something that will make my future generations also do the same thing.”
Her fellow classmate, Ismah Tahiya shares a similar sentiment, “I think Bangla school is more important than English because you need to learn your culture’s language.”
There are currently five teachers in Bangla School, and three levels of students, each with their own subgroup, named after Bengali birds: Tuntuni (preschool – year one), Dayal (years two – four) and Machranga (years five – seven).
As Rumana Siddique collects homework from her Dayal students, she says, “Of course we need to learn English and learn it well but that doesn’t necessitate enrolling children into an EMS. 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 government…have decided that Bangladesh’s history and culture is not as significant [as Britain’s].”
Despite the decisions made by Bangladesh’s Education Board, she recognizes the importance of Thistlehwaite’s drive, “The Australian government has always been keen to commemorate other cultures and languages, not just Bangla, so I think they are doing their part well. But we need to think about what we can do, and what our responsibilities entail…we must think of what we can do with that support, how much further we can go now because of it.”
The best way to spread Bangla, she says, is to encourage parents to speak it at home with their children.
Her co-worker Millie Islam, agrees. “If [children] don’t learn [Bangla] at home, then even communicating in Bangla School becomes unnecessarily difficult. That’s why it should be given more importance, especially at home, amongst the family. Parents should speak Bangla to ensure interest amongst the children. This is a huge responsibility that parents must undertake, but it is a worthy one.”
The children attending Bangla School are aware of their role in conserving Bangla. Alveera Sahab, in year five, likes “how fun learning Bangla is”, conceding “the responsibility comes from us” in securing Bangla.
Ahmad does not believe the children are the problem with Bangla’s future. “There’s roughly a population of 10,000 Bengalis in Sydney but when you compare that ratio to the amount of children enrolled….its really frustrating to see the lack of dedication. Our attitude is a huge obstacle. We don’t think learning Bangla is particularly important. We don’t place Bangla in high importance. That needs to change first, before anything else.”