On February 21, 1952, a large gathering of students and activists in Dhaka, Bangladesh, marched in protest of the declaration by the then Central Pakistan government that Urdu would be the national language of Pakistan. Fearing the loss of their mother language of Bangla, the people of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), fought to save this critical piece of their culture, and in doing so, set off a movement for independence from Pakistan. February 21 was named Language Martyrs’ Day to commemorate this initial protest and it was renamed International Mother Language Day by UNESCO in 1999. This guest blog from Zaki Hasan, Room to Read's Country Director in Bangladesh, is a powerful reminder of how a community’s language can unite a culture.
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It was the day before National Martyrs’ Day, a day that carries special meaning for all Bangladeshis. I was in secondary school at the time, and like most of my classmates, I was from a family on a very limited budget. If we wanted money for anything extra, like ice cream or other treats, we had to be innovative and entrepreneurial in raising it ourselves.
National Martyrs’ Day honors the "language martyrs" who gave their blood in 1952 to protect the right of Bangladeshis to speak in their mother tongue language of Bangla. Each year, thousands of people gather at and bring flowers to the monument of Shahid Minar to show respect for the millions who died to maintain the Bangla language. Knowing we would have a sizable group of prospective customers, my entreprising friends and I devised a plan to produce and sell “alphabet badges,” painting a Bangla letter on a small piece of wood and attaching a safety pin to the back. To our surprise, our simple badges became the “buy of the day,” and we quickly sold our entire inventory of 100 badges in less than an hour!
Not only was this a lesson in supply-and-demand, it also illustrated the immense admiration for the people who participated in the language movement in 1952.That language movement ignited the urge for freedom in Bangladesh and led to a nine-month war for liberation in 1971—a war that cost the lives of three million people and injured millions more. Over the years, new generations continued to honor the great sacrifice of these brave pioneers and more and more people gathered at Shahid Minar. We were especially delighted when, in 1999, UNESCO declared February 21 as International Mother Language Day to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism around the globe.
However, despite the increased awareness of the actual commemorative day, it is discouraging to see how little we, in Bangladesh, are actually emphasizing the effective teaching of Bangla, the language spoken by the majority of the population and used in primary school instruction. It appears that learning the Bangla language has become less important than learning English, mathematics or science. Parents are interested to know how well their child has scored in all the other subjects except Bangla, because getting low scores in Bangla is perceived as normal. Bangla language learning happens with such casual focus that our children are completing primary education with low levels of accuracy, fluency and comprehension skills in the language. The ultimate result is an overall impact on the quality of primary school education which ultimately influences the quality of education at upper levels.
At Room to Read Bangladesh, we are working to develop a generation of independent readers well-versed in their mother tongue. As leaders in this Bangla language literacy movement, we are supporting programs to improve Bangla language teaching, providing supplementary materials for early readers and establishing libraries in classrooms to address reading skills and promote reading habits. Fortunately, our work is well-received, and it seems that it doesn’t take much effort to remind people about the importance of mother tongue literacy.
Bangla is challenging to learn and to teach, and so we are trying to be innovative in introducing the language to students in ways other than standard grammar rule memorization. In 2010, we organized a Language Fair on International Mother Language Day, and used games, rhymes, songs and other activities to get students interested in learning. This year, in addition to our language fair, we will partner with the International Cricket Council (ICC) and Reliance Life Insurance during the ICC World Cup in a global campaign to raise awareness of literacy. In various media events, national cricket team players from Bangladesh will meet with some of our students to promote reading and learning.
Like the strong connection to the Bangla language that my friends and I witnessed as we sold our alphabet badges so many years ago, I am again seeing a revived swell of pride in maintaining our mother tongue that we fought long and hard to keep. While having resources and processes are important for promoting literacy, the most important of element of any successful literacy program is to have people’s passion around the objective. Thankfully, in Bangladesh we have that in incredible amounts. We believe our ability to read and write Bangla with fluency and accuracy is a great tribute to the "language martyrs" and the dream that cost them their lives—a nation where people are free from injustice, inequality and poverty.
Read more about our work in Bangladesh.