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The 21st of February is International Mother Language Day – the most celebrated day worldwide for languages. Grimly, this day also poses a strange paradox – a day that reminds us of the many languages which didn’t make it. Because even as we speak, we lose a language. Even as we celebrate, we lose a language. Research shows that we lose a language around the world, nearly every fourteen days. This paradox eludes and endangers language resources. Indigenous languages are, particularly, more threatened with extinction.
What precipitates this extinction? Why do people stop using them? In relation to the many lost indigenous languages, I draw my example from the lost Aboriginal languages: the languages of Australia’s first nation.
The Aboriginal culture is the oldest living culture in the world which dates back nearly eighty-thousand years. There are over three hundred Aboriginal languages belonging to an estimated twenty-eight language families and isolates. Sadly, many of these languages are lost today. As linguist Margaret Florey comments when asked about the disappearance of Aboriginal languages: “There were probably at least 250 languages at the time of colonisation. Now some of those languages have completely disappeared because of the processes associated with colonisation.”
One of those processes is the tainted history of the stolen generation. In a bid to eradicate the skin colour and the culture of this first nation, children were taken systematically from their mothers and placed in white families. Their languages were not encouraged to be spoken and the culture was slowly forgotten; while the colour of their skin was lightened through intermarriages. Only the English language and the European culture were allowed to prevail. Such cultural and language hegemony gradually led to the eradication of the languages.
Bangla, the focus of this essay, was also in the line of fire. It would have been lost too, had it not been for the nation’s sacrifice, because Urdu was declared the national language of Pakistan. The speakers of Bangla felt threatened as this declaration paved the way for Urdu to become the dominant language. Bangladesh was formerly East Pakistan and, more importantly, the speakers of Bangla from East Pakistan, currently Bangladesh, constituted the majority. Rightly Bangla, if any language, should have been deemed as the national language, not Urdu.
Hence a language movement was started to preserve Bangla. The 21st of February 1952, marks the beginning of that movement and is observed as an auspicious historical moment. Let us never forget that on this day many sacrificed to save Bangla and to make Bangla the national language instead of Urdu. This was an incredible instance in world history in which the Bangladeshi nation was willing to die for the love of their language. A formal note was made recognizing what the Bangladeshi people did, the French Quebec cited this example when they were trying to break the English hegemony to carve out a place for the French language in Canada.
The French Canadians, however, did not succeed as the Bangladeshi people had in reinstating the French language as the lingua franca. Canada remains a bilingual country where the French language is dominant only in Quebec. However, in Bangladesh, the language movement created momentum in the lead up to independence, into the creation of a nation that takes pride today in Bangla being the national language – a feat achieved through struggle and sacrifice.
This year, as I commemorated this occasion of the Ekushay, meaning 21st, I revisited a time when I was growing up in Dhaka after the independence. I went to a music school, BAFA, to learn Tagore songs under the tutelage of renowned Tagore singers and teachers such as Atiqur Rahman and his wife Hamida Atique. Every Ekushay, we would have a whole night of music on BAFA show-grounds where people would jostle through the night by the hundreds to watch these functions composed of beautiful dances and songs – Aguner porosh moni choya o prane, a jibon punno koro (Let there be a touch of fire to purify life and soul) – a group dance choreographed holding candles on each of the dancer’s palms illuminating midnight, without any deterrents from electricity or hurricane lamps. A most magical moment, created by the palmed candlelights on stage. It was a touching song too, and meaningful to the many martyrs as though they too had been touched by the fire of enlightenment with the movement coming to fruition.
A traditional march to the martyr monument to pay respect to the martyrs ensued – a long march to the Shahid Minaar, with torches and candles burning nearly until dawn, another magical moment to remember. More dances and songs were performed at the monument until sunrise when this solemn march was broken.
With each passing day, relevant research into the language movement reveals and adds new dimension to the language movement, where I fail as an expat with nothing much to offer except my reminiscences. However, what really matters is the respect for the movement I have always had burning like the Olympian torch. I am thankful to our martyrs who restored our Bangla from extinction. Today, the movement has grown into an international language day. Hopefully this article can help the world understand the sacrifice some have made to keep languages alive and the respect we should have for all the world’s languages.