Indigenous languages in the North: Left to die out
Santhali, Kurukh, Sadri, Mundali -- these are just some of the many languages spoken by the indigenous communities of the flatlands in Rangpur and Rajshahi divisions.
However, despite their vast range, most of these languages are vanishing fast not only due to a lack of government initiatives to revive them – but also for the reluctance among the communities themselves to speak their native tongues.
A part of the country's cultural heritage, these languages have their own alphabets and intonations. But most of the ethnic flatland communities now seem more comfortable speaking Bangla.
Haimanti Sarkar, chief executive officer of the People's Union of the Marginalised Development Organisation (Pumdo), an NGO working for indigenous people, and a member of the Malo community, said, "Every ethnic community has the right to speak its own language for communication and also to increase the knowledge regarding its own cultures.
"But the ethnic people are gradually forgetting their languages, which means they are also forgetting their own culture and heritage."
According to the United Nations, at present, 96 percent of the world's approximately 6,700 languages are spoken by only three percent of the world's population. Although indigenous peoples make up less than six percent of the global population, they speak more than 4,000 of the world's languages.
Many of those languages are now marked as "endangered", with most of them having the possibility of becoming extinct by the year 2100.
According to a UN estimate, at least one language of the world dies out every two weeks.
The indigenous languages of Bangladesh are no less threatened, with most of them on the brink of extinction or well into endangerment.
According to a recent census by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, there are over 50 ethnic minority groups across the country, with a 1.65 crore population -- around one percent of the entire population.
Of them, the flatland indigenous communities are found in Rangpur and Rajshahi regions. With around 35-38 groups, their population in Rajshahi is around 2.44 lakh, while the figure is just above 91,000 in Rangpur division, with a majority of them living in Dinajpur.
The Santals make up the biggest part of the ethnic minorities across the two divisions.
Speaking to The Daily Star, Rabindranath Soren, president of Jatiya Adivasi Parishad, said all the ethnic minorities have their own separate languages to communicate among themselves.
The Santals use the Santhali language, which has its own alphabet. The Oraon community speaks the Kurukh language, which is also spoken by the ethnic people of India's Jharkhand, while the Munda community have the Mundali language.
All of these languages are now hardly used by the people of these communities, especially members of the younger generations, who, according to indigenous rights' workers, have no space -- not home or school -- to practise them.
Eventually, the lesser a language is spoken, the faster it becomes extinct.
The most commonly used language among the flatland ethnic communities is Sadri.
Manik Soren, information secretary of the Adivasi Parishad, said Sadri is still largely spoken among many of the communities. "But it is a mixed language."
Rabindranath Soren claimed that most indigenous languages in the flatlands are endangered, with around seven to eight of them already having become extinct over the years for various reasons.
Pumdo recently conducted a survey in Bagjana and Atapur unions in Joypurhat's Panchbibi upazila and found similar scenarios.
Some of the ethnic communities there are the Oraon, Pahan, Malo and Mahato.
The survey, carried out among school children of the communities, found that most of them cannot speak their traditional languages, with many never having even heard of them.
This correspondent on Monday visited Damdama village in Panchbibi municipality and found the observations to be true after speaking to a good number of school and college students.
In Uchai Jarka SC High School, with around 70 students from different ethnic backgrounds, this correspondent found that most of them are unfamiliar with their own languages.
Puja Singh, a sixth grader of the school from the Singh community, said she has never even heard about the language of her community. "I never even heard my parents speak in any such language."
Like her, most students of the school said they use Bangla for their daily communications.
Anjali Mahato, a first-year HSC student, also expressed reluctance to speak her native language.
Sanjita Mahato, a homemaker in Damdama village, said neither her parents nor her in-laws speak their ethnic language.
According to the Adivasi Parishad president, the government needs to take the lead in saving the indigenous languages of these communities in order to uphold the country's multi-cultural heritage.
An option for indigenous students to learn about their cultures and heritage in their own languages in schools, colleges and universities can be a solution, he said.
"We are yet to see any apparent steps in this regard," he said, adding that the Parishad has been demanding that the government employ at least one teacher from an ethnic community in primary schools.
"But the demand was never paid any heed to."
Asked how this could be possible considering the vast number of indigenous languages, he said, the government must find a solution in this regard. "Otherwise, all these languages will become extinct. We can still save some of the endangered languages if we start the process right now."
The government in 2017 had taken an initiative to publish textbooks in the Sadri language. "It has been six years and no such book has been supplied to any school as yet."
He added, "The languages are dying out even faster in the urban areas compared to the rural ones."