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Learning Bengali as a Second Language

Learning Bengali as a Second Language

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Published by Sharif Shabbir

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Published by: Sharif Shabbir on Apr 06, 2012
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Learning Bengali as a second languageBy Sharif Shabbir
The word, “Maa” which is the Bengali word for mother is deemed to be one of the
sweetest words on earth. And we, the people of Bangladesh, are blessed with a languagelike Bengali that has a rich heritage and historical accolades. This is the language inwhich we speak, read and write everyday and that defines as Bangalees or people of Bengal whose are native speakers of Bengali. Since we are born in Bangladesh and takeBengali language for granted, we often take it lightheartedly and fail to admire it in trueterms. However every year, the month of February comes to remind us of the love forBengali as a language that we have always cherished as a nation.If we take a flashback in the past, we will come to realize why the month of February issignificant for Bengali as a language. It was the month of February in 1952, the timewhen the present topographical Bangladesh was being labeled as East Pakistan and ruledby the authority of West Pakistan (the present Pakistan that we know of) that has awhopping 1200 kilometers of Indian territory dividing in between. In 1948, MohammedAli Jinnah, the then governor of Pakistan declared in a public meeting in Dhaka that Urduand not Bengali shall be made the state language for the whole of Pakistan. Thisannouncement had tremendously angered the fellow Bangaless living in East Pakistanwho were in majority compared to their western counterparts and hence as a result, it wasquite evident that Bengali was the most widely used language all over Pakistan at thattime. But then again in January 1952, Khwaja Nazimuddin, the then prime minister of 
Pakistan reiterated Ali Jinnah’s call to make Urdu the state language of Pakistan at a public discourse in Dhaka’s Paltan
Maidan. Over the 4-year period from 1948 and 1952,the West Pakistan authority had progressed far enough to denounce the fair right of Bengali as a language of Pakistan. Sensing this unfair attitude, the students of DhakaUniversity started waging a movement to recognize the rights of Bengali as the statelanguage of Pakistan and to uphold their beloved mother tongue. The students beganobserving strikes all over the month of February to press home their demands butrepeatedly the West Pakistan authority overlooked the circumstances and called for aSection 144 ban on 21
February 1952. But the passionate lovers of Bengali languageand the brave hearts of this soil protested the move and brought out a large processiondemanding state recognition for Bengali language immediately. This led to the Pakistanipolice force firing on the procession and fresh lives of Abul Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, RafiqUddin Ahmed, Manik Gani, Abdus Salam and 2 other unknown persons had to besacrificed on that day. Following the bloodshed and ensuing protests, the West Pakistanauthority eventually had to bow down before Bengali officially recognizing andestablishing as a state language.This historical event has been cherished in Bangladesh ever since and this year, thepeople of Bangladesh will mark the 60
anniversary of the event on 21
February locally
known as “Amar Ekushey” (Eternal Twenty
) or “Vasha Shaheed Dibash” (LanguageMartyrs Day). The “Shaheed Minar”(Martyr’s Monument) proudly stands on the premise
of where the bloodshed took place 60 years ago. It still reminds us of the brave sacrificesthat the people of this land had made to fulfill their unconditional love towards their
mother language. Interestingly, no other nation had to sacrifice their lives in order toestablish their mother language, so we, the Bangalees, hold our heads high in being the
world’s first and only nation to shed every inch of our body’s blood for upholding our 
mother language as a state language. This has been possible because we love our motherlanguage very dearly and very passionately. It needs not to be mentioned that all nationsaround the world have never-ending love towards their mother tongue but they did nothave to sacrifice their lives like the Bangalees did and that is why the 1952 languagemovement is special undoubtedly. And in November 1999, UNESCO gave officialrecognition to this special language movement and announced 21
February as the
“International mother Language Day” all over the world. This recognition was given
 pay ode to the brave language martyrs of Bangladesh, to show love towards one’s mother 
language and also to respect all the languages existent on earth promoting linguistic andcultural diversity among countries. Now 21
February is celebrated all throughout theworld, not just in Bangladesh only. The day reminds Bangladeshi people of the 1952language movement and inspires them to take a pledge to uphold Bengali as their motherlanguage in all aspects of life by which a proper tribute to the 1952 martyrs can beensured.Moving on from the language movement incident. Bengali, with its age old longhistorical background, profound heritage and dynamic evolution, has always attractedpeople of distant foreign lands to pursue it as a second language. From the colonialbackground of Bangladesh, Arabs were the first ones who contributed to Bengali as alanguage and the Europeans then followed suit. In fact, Bengali was given a formal formby foreigners not by any local language enthusiast. Formal records say that until the 18thcentury, there was no attempt to document Bengali grammar. The first written Bengali
dictionary/grammar, “
Vocabolario em idioma Bengalla, e Portuguez dividido em duaspartes
”, was written by the
Portuguese missionary Manuel da Assumpção between 1734and 1742 while he was serving in Bhawal Estate.
Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, a Britishgrammarian
, wrote a modern Bengali grammar book titled “
A Grammar of the Bengal
Language” (1778)
that used Bengali types in print for the first time. Later an EnglishBaptist missionary named William Carey contributed further to the development of Bengali. He was an ardent Bengali learner and researcher. He had translated the Biblefrom English
to Bengali and improved Bengali’s grammatical structure. He also be
camethe head of the Bengali department at Fort William College in Calcutta (presentPashchim Banga or Kolkata). While teaching Bengali as a professor, he worked on givingBengali a more formal outlook which triggered an outburst of some classic and epicBengali literary works initiated by contemporary Bengali writers of his time. Withoutthese foreign nationals, we might not have discovered the modern Bengali language of today.The love for Bengali in the hearts of foreigners never subsided. In the context of globalization with Muhammad Yunus being the first Bangladeshi to win a Nobel PeacePrize and Rabindranath Tagore wining Nobel Prize for his epic, Geetanjali and also with
the rise of tourism mainly due to Cox’s Bazar, the world’s longest sea beach an
Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, many foreigners are being attracted to
this small piece of land. And as they arrive here in Bangladesh, they make efforts to learn
the language first in order to communicate with the natives for daily needs. Often attimes, these minimal efforts ignite a strong love for the Bengali language in the hearts of the foreign nationals that they want to explore the language even more by learning itproperly. And hence we find foreign nationals being able to speak fluent Bengali. Onesuch person is William Radichi,
a Bengali professor of University of London’s School of 
Oriental and African Studies who spoke on the inaugural ceremony of the traditionalmonth-long Amar Ekushey Boimela (Eternal Twenty-first Book Fair) on 1
February2012 organized every year to commemorate the 1952 language movement. In his speech,Prof. Radichi stunned the spectators by speaking in absolute fluent Bengali which earnedhim huge on the spot appraisals. He also recited few lines from Michael Madhusudan
Dutt’s poem, “He Banga Vandare Tobo” and Shamsur Rahman’s “Amar DukhiniBornomala” in clear Bengali pronunciation Prof. Radichi got attracted to Bengali when
he was an English student at Oxford University in 1971. He also followed news stories
relating to the 1971 liberation war of Bangladesh. He says, “I saw the photo of Sheikh
Mujibur Rahman, the initiator of the freedom struggle of the Banglalees and I got
inspired to pursue learning Bengali.” Since then, he has linked himself with Benga
language right from the time of Bangladesh’s inception! He has translated Geetanjali and
Meghnadh Bodh from Bengali to English. He also holds knowledge of almost all formsof Bengali literature.
This great Bengali language enthusiast says, “It is a good
trend thatmany Western researchers are now showing interest in Bengali and they are alsotranslating Bengali literary works. This is because Bengali has a rich history and heritage
making it unique.”
 Another passionate Bengali learner and practitioner, German-born Dr. Hann-Ruth
Thompson is also a Bengali lector at University of London’s School of Oriental and
African Studies. She came to Bangladesh in the early nineties accompanying her husbandand lived here for 4 years. It is in this time period that she developed a love affair withBengali. However, she could end her love affair with the language even after she left. Shehad worked with Bengali grammar and published her first book on Bengali named
“Essential Everyday Bengali” based on her day to day Be
ngali learning experienceswhich proved to be a hit. Then she went on to write 4 other books on Bengali. During herPhD, she got into the teaching profession and has embarked on further researches relatingto Bengali as a language. She has already conducted a comparison study of Bengali in
Bangladesh and Bengali in Kolkata. She says, “Bengali is not a hard language. If 
someone is serious about it, then learning it is fun plus the Bengali script is beautiful and
has a lovely symmetry in it.” She enjoys readi
ng works created by Buddhadeva Bose,Rabindranath Tagore, Shamsur Rahman, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Jibanananda Das andSatyajit Ray.Another foreign national to be added to the list is Catherine Masud, the wife of late filmmaker Tareque Masud, who has been living in Bangladesh since her marriage and nowhas a strong grasp of Bengali. When she speaks, it will appear that as if a native Bangaleeis speaking; she is that much fluent in Bengali. Also the Japanese professor MasahikoTogawa of University of Japan who voluntarily came to attend the 2
InternationalCongress of Bengali Studies in Dhaka from 17-20 December 2011 is also a Bengali

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