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Rediscovering My Roots: Literacy and History on Mother Language Day

 You may know that today is International Mother Language Day, but why is it important?

    On this day in 1952, in what was then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), Bengali university students were shot and killed by armed police, while protesting for the recognition of Bangla, rather than Urdu, as the official language of East Pakistan. It would be some years before Bangla was officially recognised as the state language of East Pakistan, but this day marked the beginning of the independence movement for a sovereign Bangladesh. People in Bangladesh mark today with a national holiday, songs and poetry recitals, repeating the words “amra tomader bhulbo na.” We will not forget you.

monument to the martyrs of the language movement

    My parents have always tried to instill in us a sense of the importance of learning Bangla, but for many Bangladeshis in Britain, their mother tongue is not actually the ‘standard’ Bangla but one of the regional dialects from Sylhet, Noakhali, Chittagong or Mymensingh.

example of Sylheti Nagari script

    On the eve of International Mother Language Day I have been doing the nerdy thing and learning how to read the old vernacular language of Sylhet, the region in Bangladesh that my grandparents came from. My mother was born in the UK and so I consider my own mother tongue to be English, as that is the language we have always conversed in. But I grew up hearing Bangla, or more accurately, Sylheti, all around me. My grandparents spoke it to me (even though I’d answer in English) and my parents speak it to each other. I am able to hold a passable conversation in Sylheti, but I’d probably struggle to sustain it for very long.

    I had always thought of Sylheti as just a spoken dialect of Bangla, but there is a rich literary tradition of Sylheti poetry and literature. It even has its own script, which was commonly read and written by ordinary folk without much formal education, and has been in use since at least the 16th century. The main use of this script was to write ‘puthi’s - epic poems and stories of religious or mythical figures which people would read aloud to their families or larger gatherings as a form of entertainment. Stories like the legend of Lokkindur, who was fated to be bitten by a snake and tried to escape his destiny by building himself an iron fort; or of Lokkindur’s father-in-law Chand Sadagar who sailed across the seas to make his fortune; or stories of figures and battles from Islamic history. The texts were written down in volumes which families kept and treasured for generations.

    While studying the letters and trying to decipher some simple sentences, I was surprised to find how simple it is compared to standard Bangla. I wonder if there wasn’t some sort of colonial or class tyranny in the standardisation of Bangla, with its closer links to Sanskrit, its confusing array of duplicate vowels that sound exactly the same (to me anyway), and its aspirate consonants that don’t exist in many of the regional dialects. Perhaps this was a way to ensure that provincials from outside the centre of power would always stick out, with their funny or incorrect pronunciation.

    So I love the idea that ordinary farming folk had this level of literacy, and this reverence for - and engagement with - the written word. And it has existed for centuries, even though the narratives of colonialism and Empire would have us believe that until these people were colonised, they were ignorant rustics who were brought the light of learning and progress by their imperial saviours. In fact they, my ancestors, were already both literate and cultured. The British Empire on the other hand systematically undid centuries of learning with policies designed to dismantle traditional educational systems, and they did not replace it with anything fit for purpose, leading to a drastic drop in literacy levels throughout India. Instead of valuing instruction in the myriad mother-languages found in India, the medium of English was imposed, and ‘Hindustani’ was developed as a lingua franca. Vernacular languages and dialects fell further by the wayside and only remained as spoken dialects until there was little to no prestige left attached to them.

    Fortunately there seems to be a revival of sorts, with a growing recognition that teaching children in their mother tongue is actually beneficial to their progress and outcomes. According to UNESCO this is actually the theme for this year:

"Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society"…encourages us to support multilingualism and the use of mother tongues, both at school and in everyday life. This is essential, because when 40% of the world's inhabitants do not have access to education in the language they speak or understand best, it hinders their learning, as well as their access to heritage and cultural expressions. This year, special attention is being paid to multilingual education from early childhood, so that for children, their mother tongue is always an asset."

— Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day

International Mother Language Day (

    People sacrifice themselves for all sorts of things: for territory, for faith, for wealth or the right to live in freedom. I happen to share ancestry with people who were willing to martyr themselves for the sake of language; the chance to express themselves with flair, integrity and ease. These were also people who prized stories and the written word, keeping the tradition of group readings alive for centuries.

    Language is expression, communication, the vehicle for ideas and emotions and the bridging of distance between people. Given where my family have come from, perhaps it’s only fitting that so much of my work every day is about language, reading and stories. I suppose you could say, it’s in my blood.



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