The best part of the VSO induction programme had to be the short language learning opportunity afforded us at the HEED Language Centre in Banani (a suburb of Dhaka). The language centre is one of the activities of HEED Bangladesh (Health, Education and Economic Development), a Christian NGO founded in 1974 by several western partner organisations, in response to post-war needs in Bangladesh. You can read more about HEED on their website.
The language, Bangla, is of key importance to Bangladeshis and was a principal issue in the liberation war. As part of East Pakistan, Bangladeshis had to fight to prevent Urdu (and only Urdu) from being the national language. Many lives were lost in the struggle to protect the language, most notably on Ekushey – 21st February 1952 – when 12 students from the Bangla Language Movement were killed by the Pakistani army. (Ekush means ‘21’ in Bangla.) Incidentally, Bangladesh instigated the process in the UN that led to the establishment of International Mother Language Day – 21st February. Some commentators maintain that the social cohesion that exists at the national level in Bangladesh can be attributed more to linguistic nationalism than to democracy. Furthermore, some contend, that when Bangladesh seceded from East Pakistan, the ‘Land of the [Muslim] Pure’ and became Bangladesh, the ‘Land of the Bengals’, language (as part of a broader Bengali culture) replaced religion as the country’s organising principle.
As the official language of Bangladesh, Bangla has a rich cultural heritage in poetry, song and literature. At least two Bengali poets/prose writers are well-known in the West: Rabindranath Tagore, a Hindu and a Nobel laureate (see post 29); and Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976), a Muslim known as the ‘voice of Bengali nationalism and independence’ and the national poet. One of the most well-known collectors of folklore and stories from rural Bangladesh is Jasim Uddin (1903-1976). (For more on Jasim Uddin, see post 31.) (I should make reference here to the fact that while Bangla is the official and most widely spoken language, there are 41 other languages used in Bangladesh – see post 8 pt. 10).
These historical and cultural moorings aside, today, for me, what is really noticeable is how genuinely pleased and chuffed – and mostly surprised – people are when I attempt (even badly) to use Bangla. This, more than anything else, encourages me to learn as much as I can. Because time for official lessons was limited, the focus was on the spoken, rather than the written, language. Usually I am the kind of language learner who needs to understand the structure of a language before I can speak it. More often than not I will end up being able to read and write a language before being proficient (if at all) in conversation. However, because I will only be in Bangladesh for a short time, I decided to push myself outside my comfort zone and engage in conversation, rather than spending time learning a new alphabet (see image below at end of post) and full grammatical structure. With the help of the lessons from HEED and a phonetic English-Bangla, Bangla-English dictionary, I was happy at how quickly I was able to make myself understood in everyday situations, from haggling at markets to hailing CNGs and rickshaws. I am also able to have simple conversations with people I meet on the streets.
It is of course frequently frustrating not to be able to have deeper and more meaningful conversations, particularly with the friends I have made in Bangladesh. Most educated Bangladeshis can speak some English but their levels, though far ahead of my level of Bangla, are still insufficient for us to have reflective or significant exchanges. Nevertheless, I get a huge amount of pleasure from the joyful reactions to my feeble attempts at Bangla, and the subsequent exchanges that afford me glimpses into the lives of the many wonderful people I meet every day.