Learning Bengali as a second language By 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 language like Bengali that has a rich heritage and historical accolades. This is the language in which 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 take Bengali language for granted, we often take it lightheartedly and fail to admire it in true terms. However every year, the month of February comes to remind us of the love for Bengali 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 is significant for Bengali as a language. It was the month of February in 1952, the time when the present topographical Bangladesh was being labeled as East Pakistan and ruled by the authority of West Pakistan (the present Pakistan that we know of) that has a whopping 1200 kilometers of Indian territory dividing in between. In 1948, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the then governor of Pakistan declared in a public meeting in Dhaka that Urdu and not Bengali shall be made the state language for the whole of Pakistan. This announcement had tremendously angered the fellow Bangaless living in East Pakistan who were in majority compared to their western counterparts and hence as a result, it was quite evident that Bengali was the most widely used language all over Pakistan at that time. 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 Dhaka University started waging a movement to recognize the rights of Bengali as the state language of Pakistan and to uphold their beloved mother tongue. The students began observing strikes all over the month of February to press home their demands but repeatedly the West Pakistan authority overlooked the circumstances and called for a Section 144 ban on 21st February 1952. But the passionate lovers of Bengali language and the brave hearts of this soil protested the move and brought out a large procession demanding state recognition for Bengali language immediately. This led to the Pakistani police force firing on the procession and fresh lives of Abul Barkat, Abdul Jabbar, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Manik Gani, Abdus Salam and 2 other unknown persons had to be sacrificed on that day. Following the bloodshed and ensuing protests, the West Pakistan authority eventually had to bow down before Bengali officially recognizing and establishing as a state language. This historical event has been cherished in Bangladesh ever since and this year, the people of Bangladesh will mark the 60th anniversary of the event on 21st February locally known as “Amar Ekushey” (Eternal Twenty-first) or “Vasha Shaheed Dibash” (Language Martyrs 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 sacrifices that 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 to establish 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 mother language very dearly and very passionately. It needs not to be mentioned that all nations around the world have never-ending love towards their mother tongue but they did not have to sacrifice their lives like the Bangalees did and that is why the 1952 language movement is special undoubtedly. And in November 1999, UNESCO gave official recognition to this special language movement and announced 21st February as the “International mother Language Day” all over the world. This recognition was given to 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 and cultural diversity among countries. Now 21st February is celebrated all throughout the world, not just in Bangladesh only. The day reminds Bangladeshi people of the 1952 language movement and inspires them to take a pledge to uphold Bengali as their mother language in all aspects of life by which a proper tribute to the 1952 martyrs can be ensured. Moving on from the language movement incident. Bengali, with its age old long historical background, profound heritage and dynamic evolution, has always attracted people of distant foreign lands to pursue it as a second language. From the colonial background of Bangladesh, Arabs were the first ones who contributed to Bengali as a language and the Europeans then followed suit. In fact, Bengali was given a formal form by foreigners not by any local language enthusiast. Formal records say that until the 18th century, there was no attempt to document Bengali grammar. The first written Bengali dictionary/grammar, “Vocabolario em idioma Bengalla, e Portuguez dividido em duas partes”, was written by the Portuguese missionary Manuel da Assumpção between 1734 and 1742 while he was serving in Bhawal Estate. Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, a British grammarian, 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 English Baptist missionary named William Carey contributed further to the development of Bengali. He was an ardent Bengali learner and researcher. He had translated the Bible from English to Bengali and improved Bengali’s grammatical structure. He also became the head of the Bengali department at Fort William College in Calcutta (present Pashchim Banga or Kolkata). While teaching Bengali as a professor, he worked on giving Bengali a more formal outlook which triggered an outburst of some classic and epic Bengali literary works initiated by contemporary Bengali writers of his time. Without these 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 Peace Prize 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 and 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 at times, 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 it properly. And hence we find foreign nationals being able to speak fluent Bengali. One such 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 traditional month-long Amar Ekushey Boimela (Eternal Twenty-first Book Fair) on 1st February 2012 organized every year to commemorate the 1952 language movement. In his speech, Prof. Radichi stunned the spectators by speaking in absolute fluent Bengali which earned him 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 Dukhini Bornomala” 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 Bengali 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 forms of Bengali literature. This great Bengali language enthusiast says, “It is a good trend that many Western researchers are now showing interest in Bengali and they are also translating 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 husband and lived here for 4 years. It is in this time period that she developed a love affair with Bengali. However, she could end her love affair with the language even after she left. She had worked with Bengali grammar and published her first book on Bengali named “Essential Everyday Bengali” based on her day to day Bengali learning experiences which proved to be a hit. Then she went on to write 4 other books on Bengali. During her PhD, she got into the teaching profession and has embarked on further researches relating to 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 reading works created by Buddhadeva Bose, Rabindranath Tagore, Shamsur Rahman, Kazi Nazrul Islam, Jibanananda Das and Satyajit Ray. Another foreign national to be added to the list is Catherine Masud, the wife of late film maker Tareque Masud, who has been living in Bangladesh since her marriage and now has a strong grasp of Bengali. When she speaks, it will appear that as if a native Bangalee is speaking; she is that much fluent in Bengali. Also the Japanese professor Masahiko Togawa of University of Japan who voluntarily came to attend the 2nd International Congress of Bengali Studies in Dhaka from 17-20 December 2011 is also a Bengali

researcher. He has been conducting a thorough research on the Bengali spiritual folk musician Lalon and Bengali language. There are many foreign nationals who personally come to Bangladesh to learn Bengali language. One such learner is Dorota Porawska who came to Dhaka to conduct a research for her postgraduate course. She enrolled herself to the nine-week intensive Bengali language course hosted by Bengali Language Institute (BLI) at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB). She says, “I just love the sound of Bengali language, the words are so rhythmic and its fun knowing them.” She also adds that foreigners come to Bangladesh for visits, thesis work or research and then they get attached with Bengali language and culture just like she did. Daniel Daily, an American national came to Bangladesh and has been living here ever since. As he lived in this land of greenery, he got amused by the dynamics of Bengali language and wanted to express and communicate more openly with the locals in their own language. As a result, he later enrolled himself at Department of Bengali under Institute of Modern Languages (IML) of Dhaka University. Now he is being able to speak Bengali fluently and can communicate freely with commoners like Daabwalas (coconut vendors) and Rickshaw-walas (rickshaw pullers) let aside some petty mistakes. These are some cases of foreigners who have loved Bengali deeply from the bottom of their heart and went on to study and learn it to know the language even better. Apart from these foreign nationals, we believe there are many other foreigners who are enthusiastic about learning Bengali and many more will hopefully learn it in the future. It feels good to see that through these foreign Bengali language enthusiasts, Bengali language is gaining popularity worldwide and by disseminating knowledge about Bengali language throughout the world, we can make the International Mother Language Day and its underlying motif a true success. Happy International mother Language Day to everyone!