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Cultural anxieties: Children want to learn their mother language, while parents continue to prioritise English

How a Sydney community school is reviving a language that is being shunned in its own motherland, and in the homes of the students themselves.  

By: Mansib Ahmad

Principal Rokeya Ahmed teaching her students in Machranga Bangla sentence structure

Can a language really be preserved by learning it for just three hours a week? You may say “yes, of course it can”. But what if it was the law to speak French only between three to six pm on a Tuesday? For the rest of the week you are free to choose one other language to converse, write and read in. Which language would be easier to retain for you? Students of Campbelltown Bangla School, located in Western Sydney, spend three hours every Sunday speaking, reading and writing in Bangla in an effort to maintain their cultural heritage. The children think Bangla School is fun and understand the importance of maintaining their cultural identity while living in a Western society. However, the problem seems to lie with their parents, who do not converse in Bangla with their children at home, prioritising English over their own mother language.

Campbelltown Bangla School (CBS) is in its fifteenth year of running, with sixty students, six teachers and around twenty dedicated parents who regularly give donations. The school’s mission, according to principal Rokeya Ahmed, is to “speak, practice and teach Bangla to local communities”. Despite a “lack of skilled professionals, a lack of materials and a lack of resources”, Ahmed, who has been with Bangla School since the beginning, believes it won’t “derail us [the school]”. Through a “structured syllabus”, CBS runs every Sunday morning, with students arriving 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 the Bangladesh war, or researching prominent Bengali figures. 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.

Regardless of the work Bangla School does in encouraging children to proudly accept their heritage, language and culture, students are still lacking in their Bangla skills because their parents do not speak it at home.

Students in Dayal learning Bangla from their teacher, Rumana Siddique

Rumana Siddique teaches the ‘Dayal’ group at school. These are students in years two to four. She says there is one critical factor in preserving Bangla: “The first and foremost thing is to learn to Bangla from home. Just have small conversations with your family in Bangla.” This encourages both children and parents to nurture their mother language, providing a strong sense of belonging with the rest of the community


These thoughts are a commonality between the teachers; similarly, Millie Islam, who teaches the ‘Machranga’ students (years five to seven) alongside Ahmed says: “Parents should place importance on learning Bangla, because their children will learn English eventually at school [Bangla] should be given more importance, especially amongst at home, amongst the family. It is a huge responsibility that parents must undertake, but it is a worthy one.”

So why exactly are parents not involving their children in learning Bangla? And why is it so important for Bangla to be preserved?

The answer is multifaceted and complicated.

Bangladesh gained their independence in 1971, against Pakistan after a nine-month war, which resulted in three million deaths. Time Magazine called the gaining of independence, “The bloody birth of Bangladesh.” Prior to this, Bangladesh was known as ‘East Pakistan’. Operated by the Pakistani government, Bengalis were monitored heavily: they were not allowed to speak their own language or be seen in groups with more than four people and had to return home by seven pm.

Standing at a podium overlooking thousands of Bengalis, on 27 January 1952, governor general of East Pakistan, Khawaja Nazimuddin declared: “From now on Urdu and only Urdu will be spoken.”

In defiance of this statement, students from the University of Dhaka began a peaceful protest on the morning of 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 protest, 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 1971. The Language Movement is therefore commemorated as the first stepping stone to Bangladesh’s independence, heavily influencing Bengali literature, culture and art.

Students have a wide range of material, learning from textbooks and activity books

In 1999, UNESCO recognized 21 February as ‘International Mother Language Day’ in honour of Bangladesh’s struggle to keep their mother tongue. In fact, Bangladesh literally translates to “Land of Bangla”.

“Bangla is the only language that’s ever been fought for, we went through a violent war to get it recognised,” Islam says, on why preserving Bangla is necessary.

It is here, in the land of Bangla, where Bangla is being neglected in higher education, with an emphasis on English being ideal for intellectual studies, according to the academics who spoke 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, and to remove the stereotype that Bangla “is unsophisticated” as it was impacting enrolment rates in schools which prioritised Bangla.

“…It’s high time to take care of Bangla as a language of necessity,” he said.

Discussion panel entitled ‘Higher Education, Research and Intellectual Pursuits in Mother Tongue’ addressing the lack of Bangla in higher education. Photo credit: United News Bangladesh

Could this mentality of Bangla being “unsophisticated” be the reason for a parent’s negligence? Siddique agrees it is a “huge reason why parents prioritise English – it links back to this stereotype that Bangla isn’t sophisticated, that it doesn’t meet the status quo.”

The children attending Bangla School are aware of their role in conserving in Bangla. Alveera Sahab, in year five, likes “how fun learning Bangla is”, conceding “the responsibility comes from us” in securing Bangla.

“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,” says Ahmed. “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.”


This article was subedited by Serah Lee.