Colombo, February 1 (DailyFT/Harmony Page): How is our Mother Language connected with identity, our creative ethos, heritage and our very being? Is language in a pluralistic society an opportunity or a challenge? In a globalized world where there is much emphasis on English, what is the importance of protecting our most valued possessions as a nation, our languages and in Sri Lanka’s case Sinhalese and Tamil, and globally, the diverse languages of countries and communities across the world? Following are excerpts of an interview with High Commissioner of Bangladesh Riaz Hamidullah in the backdrop of preparing for the celebration of the International Mother Language Day on 21 February.
Q: Tell us the history behind the Mother Language Day initiated by Bangladesh?
A: In 1948, within one year of founding Pakistan, the Pakistani rulers declared that Urdu shall be the language of the nation, even though Bengali-speaking Muslims were 55% of the entire population. It is then that we realised that our ‘identity’ has to be upheld. Because, once you cut off a population from their lingua franca – their mother tongue – then eventually they get de-linked from their heritage, from their roots.
By early 1952, Bengali people (in the present-day Bangladesh) started standing up to defend their linguistic heritage. On 21 February 1952, Bengali people from a cross section of life brought our peaceful protest rally on the streets in protest of the stipulation by the rulers. But, without any provocation, police fired at the peaceful protest march. Several ordinary people were martyred.
This happened within the first five years of (united) Pakistan. While it’s all part of history now, the 1952 Language Movement made the people in East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh) realise that this was not what they fought for.
“Mother Language Day should remind each of us that wherever we are – whether in a metropolis, a developed country or, a far-away island – that each of our mother languages ought to be respected, that there is no hierarchy, that the size of the population, community or country does not matter as far as language is concerned. All languages have to be valued, respected and nurtured equally. That is essentially to give meaning to mutual trust and mutual respect”
In many parts of the world where people could not secure their lingua franca, they eventually got de-linked from their hundreds of years of recorded history. In the process, they were unable to read their own treasured books written by their forefathers. To their children, their history begins like only yesterday. The people of Bangladesh realised this in the early ’50s.
Decades later, in 1999, few Bangladeshis in Canada made a petition to the UNESCO proposing that every 21 February should be commemorated as the international mother language day. Following tedious deliberations, 28 countries co-sponsored and unanimously adopted a Resolution. All SAARC countries (including Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan) co-sponsored the Resolution.
Any country could have petitioned the UNESCO in getting the Mother Language day recognised. But, Bangladesh took the lead because of our people’s sacrifice in getting the due rights for our mother language, our lingua franca.
The unanimous recognition given by the UN for this, was in recognition of a very integral part of human values, humanitarianism and the promoting of our shared human culture through language.
This day – International Mother Language Day – is now observed on 21 February also in celebration of around 7,000 languages documented in the world so far.
Q: Could you explain the significance of Mother Language Day in general to the world where hundreds of languages are used and keep alive many cultures?
A: This day should remind each of us that wherever we are – whether in a metropolis, a developed country or, a far-away island – that each of our mother language ought to be respected, that there is no hierarchy, that the size of the population, community or country does not matter as far as language is concerned. All languages have to be valued, respected and nurtured equally. That is essentially to give meaning to mutual trust and mutual respect.
Nurturing a language or letting an individual or a people express their ideas and thoughts through their mother tongue may not necessarily yield material benefits or economic output. Language should not be seen through any materialistic lens.
In 1952, the individuals who laid their lives on the streets of Dhaka in asserting their right to their language, were not political activists. Neither were they in any way the who’s who of Dhaka. In two decades since 1952, Bengali people were forced into the 1971 War of Liberation. That ‘people’s war’ clearly drew from the Language Movement of 1952. Since then, the Language Movement has defined the mindscape of every Bangladeshi across generations as to why language is so important, what is language for a nation or nationhood, why one has to uphold the purity of his/her language.
We appreciate the linguistic heritage not only of our language (Bengali) but of everyone else. We believe that anyone who does not pay attention to this rightful possession of theirs i.e. their heritage and culture may find that once it gets lost that it is not something that can be given to a technician to repair or restore.
Q: In Sri Lanka there is the debate whether English is essential for the furthering of knowledge and believed in some circles that a lack of English is a great deprivation. Your comments?
A: English is a most dynamic language. Every year, the Oxford Dictionary adds hundreds of new words, expressions to it. It’s just commonplace to get locked in the debate over English versus mother language. Evidences across societies abound to suggest that English fulfils a necessary but not the essential condition in learning or knowledge generation. English should not be at the expense of one’s mother tongue.
I am a vernacular product. Till grade 12, my entire medium of instruction was in Bengali. I initially wanted to attend a University in the West. My motivation was to experience their techniques and tools in learning. But, I could not. I finally am a South Asian product. I went to a university in northern India. Had I not read some of the finest Bengali poetic and literary creations, my mindscape or thoughts would not flow the way it does in my mother tongue.
Someone who is born in the US but originally from an Asian country, when reading a work by someone as Tagore in English may wonder why s/he is reading a timeless creation in a foreign language and yearn to read it in his/her own mother tongue. We come across younger people who have been born and raised in a Western country, yearning to learn their mother tongue even at a late age. It’s that inner yearning that counts.
“Living in a pluralistic, inclusive society or cosmopolitan environment that is so natural in contemporary times, even in South Asia, we better not confine evolution of a language just to the linguists, scholars or, poets. Let’s also recognise the important contribution of millions of our farmers, bards across villages who keep fertilising our language through their myriads of expressions. Most often, we find the original lyrics of a song that has gained popularity by a musical band, was originally composed by a faceless (‘illiterate’) rural bard”
In 2018, Jack Ma, the founder of Ali Baba, told a Session in the World Economic Forum, “I no longer look for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) graduates. To sustain Ali Baba in the new times, I look for STEAM graduates, with ‘A’ underlined. The A is for (Liberal) Arts. Only a rightful blending of elements of ‘Arts’ can keep tech-driven endeavours reaching further heights. And, where will ‘Arts’ come from if not from language and its heritage?”
Original thoughts and creativity cannot come from another language. Nations that are highly advanced in learning and innovation e.g. Japan China, Russia, France, Germany, had realised this for Centuries. Thus, long back, they structured their basic education and up to university level in their own lingua franca.
In knowledge creation, it is only logical if not biological that ideas should flow from their mother tongue. The World Commission for Culture and Development (1996) elaborated that eminently.
Q: How does Bangladesh plan to celebrate Mother Language Day in Sri Lanka this year?
A: I am in Sri Lanka since August 2016. The first time when we started observing this day in public was in 2017. We reckoned that observing a day as this merely in terms of holding Seminar in an air-conditioned room or through modest cultural events drawing a crowd of few odd hundreds makes little sense. I felt, that is rather a gruesome injustice to the letter and spirit and objectives in commemorating a day as this – the International Day of Mother Language. We thus decided to go outdoors – because language is all about fluidity, because every language is dynamic. If that’s the case, then let us go outdoors and bring the adults and children, standing shoulder-to-shoulder; and we did see that a six-year-old school child, a 60-year-old political leader and diplomats standing next to each other, subtly breaking every possible barrier in language or expressions. Everyone seamlessly engaged in creative art activity.
For the past three years – 2017, 2018, 2019 – we gathered at the Vihara Mahadevi Park on 21 February morning, before the view of passing cars and passers-by and during the three to four hours we were in the park we created some fun. Yet, underlying all the fun, we tried to bring before everyone the finer elements that define linguistic heritage, the foundational messages of pluralism that should define us. And, that is where things are common. It is not what I speak in Bangla and one speaks in Sinhalese or someone in French or Russian. What counts are the expressions. Everyone participating appreciated that this was a fantastic way of unifying or creating a unifying sense of all languages. In our creative Arts endeavours, we created unique designs each year. Every design came out through substantial consultation and interaction with children, lyricists and scholars in Sri Lanka.
“Every language has its own beauty and rhythm. Let us appreciate that. It is foolish to think of a hierarchy of languages or, claim that one’s language is superior or richer to another. It will be foolhardy to claim that Bengali is the most rhythmic or richest language in the world. What is needed is to create ‘cohesion’, ‘empathy’ and ‘respect for all, through language’. Every language has its dynamism and beauty and rich culture woven around it. It is the ordinary people in any land who decide how they put their mother tongue into practice through everyday interaction, in gathering knowledge. It cannot be done merely by any governmental directive, such as saying that Bengali shall be the language used in all correspondence etc. The ultimate objective is to preserve language in a trustful, respectful, candid and open manner”
Just consider the themes we propagated in successive three years: language for peace, harmony, stability and prosperity of all (in 2017); Language for Unity (in 2018); Celebrate Languages (in 2019). One may observe a certain progression in the themes. For instance, in the case of the 2017 theme, we explained: ‘stability’ and ‘prosperity’ will come only when you secure ‘peace’ and ‘harmony’ in a society. And, it has to be for everyone and everywhere i.e. ‘ALL’. There cannot be any trace of segregation or any shade of distinction. In 2019, as we moved forward, as many as 17 countries (Diplomatic Missions) were represented in the Viharamahadevi Park. They joined in pronouncement of “Celebrate Languages”, meaning celebrate our mother tongue, by sharing their Flags in the Poster. No sense of hierarchy or size or endowment.
In order to move to a different level, this time (2020), we partnered with the Sri Lankan Ministry of Education. The United Nations system in Sri Lanka and the Sri Lankan Scouts also collaborated. We all rolled out an Island-wide Creative Arts competition among school children (Grades VI to XIII), divided in three groups, on the theme ‘Language for Unity’. We are asking every child in Sri Lanka, ‘You come up with whatever crosses your mind to ‘stitch’ a poem, a painting or an essay’. We must acknowledge that ‘painting’ is also a formidable non-verbal language to express, no less. We are also asking: a poem can be just 25 or 50 words, but within that poem if the student can bring one thought, that is good enough. This is what we are trying to do.
Q: In a country where more than one language is spoken by its diverse communities, it is not easy to give due recognition at a policy level to all these languages. Your comments?
A: I believe Bangladesh is fortunate to be a land with homogenous language – the Bengali language – notwithstanding different dialects. But, we are also mindful because of our past, as to what may go wrong if we, a society or State do not respect other languages. That can rapidly lead to a sense of ‘otherness’. That is why, I dare to say that language everywhere is and has been an opportunity. Language must never be viewed as a challenge.
As we accept pluralism as a fact of life, we better frame language(s) as an opportunity. Every city, including Dhaka, is a pluralistic melting pot. There are people of all shades living there. So if we can’t or are not in a position to appreciate others, which starts with linguistic heritage and expression, then we are eventually creating a very uncomfortable (or risky) situation. In such scenarios, mutual trust and respect become the first casualty. Many things gradually may get affected.
Every language has its own beauty and rhythm. Let us appreciate that. It is foolish to think of a hierarchy of languages or, claim that one’s language is superior or richer to another. It will be foolhardy to claim that Bengali is the most rhythmic or richest language in the world. What is needed is to create ‘cohesion’, ‘empathy’ and ‘respect for all, through language’. Every language has its dynamism and beauty and rich culture woven around it. It is the ordinary people in any land who decide how they put their mother tongue into practice through everyday interaction, in gathering knowledge. It cannot be done merely by any governmental directive, such as saying that Bengali shall be the language used in all correspondence etc. The ultimate objective is to preserve language in a trustful, respectful, candid and open manner.
Q: Finally, maybe we can conclude that the custodians of a language are the ordinary people?
A: Living in a pluralistic, inclusive society or cosmopolitan environment that is so natural in contemporary times, even in South Asia, we better not confine evolution of a language just to the linguists, scholars or, poets. Let’s also recognise the important contribution of millions of our farmers, bards across villages who keep fertilising our language through their myriads of expressions. Most often, we find the original lyrics of a song that has gained popularity by a musical band, was originally composed by a faceless (‘illiterate’) rural bard!