Tribal Children Face Language Problem

By Rajib Humayun

Bangladesh is quite rich in tribal culture. There are about thirty-five tribes living in different parts of the country. The major tribes are Chakma, Murma, Rakhain, Garo, Santal, Tipra, Khasi, Murang, Shendhu, Pankho, Hajong etc. The Chakmas and some other major tribes live in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). The Garo and Hajong live in the hilly expanse of Mymensingh and Tangail. The Khasis live in Sylhet, while the Santals live on the plains of Rajshahi division. Each tribe has its own language and dialect. They are named after the names of the tribes, such as, Chakma, Murma, Garo, Santali and so on. Languages of the Lusai, Tipra, Oraow and Garo are sometimes called 'Dolen,' Hallami,' Kuruk and 'Mandikulik' respectively (Abdus Sattar, In the Sylvan Shadows). The languages are oral excepting the language of Chakma and Murma. The Chakmas and Murmas have written scripts which are sometimes used in the religious circles. Most of the tribal people can't speak, read or write Bangla. Some of them, particularly the tribal children can't even understand Bangla. There is no lingua franca in the tribal areas.

There are primary schools in different tribal areas. The planning section for the primary education in the CHT had a programme of establishing 383 schools in early nineties. The present government has taken up non-formal programme along with the formal education. The medium of instruction in all the educational institutions of CHT and other tribal areas is Bangla. The government has been trying to increase the literacy rate. It won't be increased if the mother tongues of different tribal groups are not introduced in the tribal areas. There is a clause in the recent peace-treaty about the introduction of the mother tongues in the CHT region. But so far I know, no attempt has yet been taken to do so.

The tribal intellectuals have been writing regularly to introduce their mother tongues at least at the primary level. "The tribal children face linguistic problems in the primary schools. The language of the books is Bangla but the mother tongues of the children are not Bangla. Besides the linguistic problems, there are problems in the contents of the primers also. The tribal children are familiar with the hills, deep forest, wild animals etc. since their early boyhood. But there is no reflection of their tribal life in any primer. So, the schools do not attract them at all" (Hemol Dewan). Mr Sukheswar Chakma Paltu writes, "The indigenous children do not speak Bangla. Most of the children have not even heard a single word of Bangla. It is not at all scientific to teach them in Bangla. The tribal children will feel comfortable if they are taught in their mother tongues. Mr Sugata Chakma and some other writers also are of the same opinion. I have had discussions with the Chakma King Barrister Debashish Roy, Mr Dipankar Talukdar MP and with three leaders of Jum aesthetic council. All of them are in favour of introduction of the mother tongues of the tribal people.

India has solved the linguistic problems of the different regions by introducing trilingual system (regional language, Hindi and English). We would like to propose a trilingual system (relevant tribal language, Bangla and English) for different tribal groups of Bangladesh and suggest the government to introduce the tribal languages at least at the primary level. However, many of our tribal groups do not have their own alphabets and primers. Therefore, the first step will be to devise suitable scripts for them. It is very much possible for a linguist to devise appropriate written system for the tribal people, once the written system is devised the primers and other school books can be prepared in a short time. The Chakma and Murmas are fond of their scripts though they are used in extremely limited circles. The other tribes also are interested to discover the written systems of their own. Since there is no lingua franca in the tribal areas, it won't be practicable to introduce 35 written systems for 35 tribal groups. I would like to suggest Bangla script for all the tribal languages at the moment. The Manipuris of India use Bangla alphabet and I don't think they suffer from any inferiority complex. If the tribal groups of Bangladesh accept Bangla alphabet for their language, it will help them more to be in the mainstream. The tribal children will be able to read and write Bangla language easily and they won't face any problem in their higher education. It will also help them to compete in all the public examinations.

Most of the tribal writers use Bangla scripts in their creative writing. Some of the tribal leaders also are ready to accept Bangla scripts for the time-being. They told me about the differences in the phonological structures of the tribal languages and Bangla. Of course, there are some differences. But these are linguistic problems and the linguists can easily solve them.

Finally, we must say that the mother tongues of the different tribal groups of Bangladesh should be introduced at least at the primary level and the primers should be prepared in the tribal languages.

Source: The Daily Star, Dhaka, July 1, 1998