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20 February, 2021 07:24:12 PM

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Mother language, state language, official language and national language

Though the state language of Bangladesh is constitutionally Bengali, the mother language of all Bangladeshis, particularly tribal people, is not Bengali. More than 40 (including one Muslim) tribes live in Bangladesh mainly in Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Chittagong, Chittagong Hill Tracts, greater Mymensingh, Sylhet, Patuakhali and Barguna
Chinmay Prasun Biswas
Mother language, state language, official language and national language

In practical sense language means the system of communication through speech and writing that is used by people. It marks a basic difference between human beings and other animals.

Language has different dimensions at different places. Mother language is the first stage. Mother language means the language in which a mother talks to her children at their childhood. Situation might be different in some cases. If a Bangladeshi child is adopted by a German couple then his mother language would be German, not Bengali. In other words, mother language is the first language that someone acquires in his life. 

Say someone was born in the United States but his parents are from France and they speak in French at home. The person was born in the US where the state language is English but their mother tongue would be French because that's the first language they learnt. In the true sense of the term, mother language of a Sauntal or Chakma child in not Bengali but Sauntali or Chakma language because though living in Bangladesh, since childhood they are learning their own language. Till today they speak in their own language among their own community. It is factually applicable to people of certain districts of Bangladesh viz. Chittagong, Noakhali and Sylhet. People of these districts are certainly Bengalees and their mother language in undoubtedly Bengali but when they talk among themselves it is difficult, even almost impossible to understand it by people of other districts. In fact, others would get confused whether it is Bengali or any other language.

21st February has been declared as International Mother Language Day by UNESCO but it is very unusual that the phrase ‘mother language’ is not found in 7th edition of Oxford Dictionary. In the language movement of 1952 the main demand was to declare Bengali (the word Bangla was not used them) as the state language of East Pakistan but the words state language are also absent from the 7th edition of Oxford Dictionary. However, the term ‘official language’ has been used in the Oxford Dictionary which means that language which is used for official correspondence. The official language and the state language are almost synonymous.

Bengali has also acquired recognition of official language of Republic of Sierra Leone, a country of south west coast of West Africa. To restore peace, the United Nations deployed a huge number of forces there and most of them were from Bangladesh. As a recognition of gratitude to 5300 members of Bangladesh Army working in the United Nations Peace Keeping Force, Mr. Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, the then president of Sierra Leon, declared Bengali as one of the official languages (not state language) of his country. It happened after 50 years of our language movement. It was certainly a matter of pride for us but no official declaration accepting Bengali as an official language was issued.

In spite of the subsequent reality, the name of Sierra Leone has been referred to because it is the only foreign country which declared Bengali as its official language.  For Bengalees it is also another matter of pride that two songs composed by a Bengalee poet RabindranathTagore have been accepted as national anthem of Bangladesh and India. The UNESCO has selected Bengali as the sweetest language in the world followed by Spanish and Dutch. As per provision of article 3 of constitution, the state language of Bangladesh is Bengali.

Though the state language of Bangladesh is constitutionally Bengali, the mother language of all Bangladeshis, particularly tribal people, is not Bengali. More than 40 (including one Muslim) tribes live in Bangladesh mainly in Rajshahi, Dinajpur, Chittagong, Chittagong Hill Tracts, greater Mymensingh, Sylhet, Patuakhali and Barguna. Almost all these tribes have their own language. Well known tribal languages are Chakma, Garo, Khasia, Magh, Manipuri, Munda, Oraon, and Santali. Other tribal languages are Kachhari, Kuki, Tipra, Malpahadi, Mikir, Shadri and Hajang. Around 3 million people in Bangladesh speak in their own languages.

So, it is beyond doubt that the state language and the mother language are not always synonymous, rather different. Even it is true that the mother language of all members of a family may not always be the same. For instance, famous writers Arundhati Roy and Monica Ali (winners of Man Booker Prize for their fictions The God of Small Things and Brick Lane respectively) were born in a Bengalee family (in fact, semi Bengalee) but they can‘t read, write and even understand Bengali.

India is a multilingual country. The official languages are standard Hindi and English at the Central Government level, though 32 states and 7 union territories have authority to select their own official languages. Hindi, English and 15 other languages printed on Indian currency note are official languages of different Indian states. Bengali and English are printed on our currency notes also which means that other than the state language, a second language is necessary.

Bangladesh and India have no officially declared national language. There is a difference between a national language and an official language. A national language bears an emotional connotation having patriotic and nationalistic feeling while an official language is for practical purpose i.e. communication at official level. Apart from an official language, there may exist other languages which are spoken by large portions of people in a particular country. For instance, the United States of America has no official language but state language is English. Many people speak in other languages viz. Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Polish, German, Swedish, native American languages, etc.

It is very difficult to find out a unilingual country at present. There is a difference between a major and a minor language. Ethnic group(s) can speak in a minor language i.e. their own language or mother language but due to social, political and economic reasons they have to learn a major language. Normally, it is either the state language or official language, because without learning this language, it is not possible to compete with others. 

Minor languages in Bangladesh are also facing such undeniable reality but there is another picture of optimism also. For the purpose of upholding, developing and expanding the culture, norms, tradition and language of tribes and ethnic groups seven specialised cultural institutions, including three in hilly areas, have been established by government. Steps have been taken to teach ethnic children in their own language at the primary level. Meanwhile, text books have been published in mother language of five ethnic groups. Around 132 primary schools in those regions are providing teaching activities in their mother language. It is a matter of pleasure that International Mother Language Day and International Year of Ethnic Groups have been simultaneously observed in this year which gives us the message that language is a symbol of our vanity and unity.

The writer is a former Commissioner of Taxes

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman

Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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