Indigenous Language Maintenance

Last updated May 10th, 2020


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When representing the people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region, both Western and Bengali people have consistently stressed the connotations of primitiveness and the language is perceived to be evidence of that primitivity.

Some indigenous people themselves started to believe these dominant discourses and they do not recognize the need for language preservation.

I am discussing here the language attrition of my native Chakma language. Even though the language is still spoken, it may become threatened because it is not taught in schools and it is undergoing tremendous transformation.

Language shift to the dominant language is occurring since many of the original Chakma words are being replaced by Bengali words.

Speaking the Chakma language enables a ‘search for a collective’ identity and gives a sense of belonging among our people.

This language enables us to give names to relations among kin, to roles and responsibilities among family members, and to ties with the broader clan group.

There are no English or Bengali words for these specific relationships because social and family life is different.

If the language is destroyed, there will be a breakdown of these relationships, culture, and the indigenous way of life.

Keeping the language alive is a matter of survival because language embodies our worldviews and how we define ourselves.

There is a sense of urgency on my part to hold on to my indigenous language because of my own struggles to maintain the language.

I have observed that many indigenous families, in Canada and Bangladesh, abandon their traditional way of life in order to integrate in the larger society by moving to urban areas and becoming heavily influenced by Bengali language and culture.

The middle class, conscious of social status, speaks Bengali and disassociates themselves from their indigenous roots.

Children are also discouraged to speak their language in order to pursue higher education.

Some of the changes in the languages have come about both due to changes in occupational patterns, social interaction with non-indigenous people and the influences of the national and international, media.

The skills required for reading and writing have practically disappeared since few people know how to use the ancient scripts and there is no support from the government for indigenous people to initiate their own educational system.

Another problem is the curriculum of the government schools, where the medium of instruction is Bengali exclusively in registered and most non-registered schools.

There are two alternatives for the indigenous students: to assimilate themselves to the Bengali mainstream or feel alienated by it.

This alienation from Bengali society is not a good option for their survival since it will not improve their social status or education level.

The feeling of being excluded from the mainstream society is inevitable because indigenous people are a small minority who are often discriminated in schools.

The indigenous minority speakers often accept the subjugation of the majority, and language shifts often occur under these stressful socio-economic circumstances, where there is no realistic option but to give in.

There needs to be a self-conscious effort toward reconstruction of indigenous identity by mobilizing socially, culturally, economically, and politically to overcome their exclusion and marginalization (Hall, Stuart. “Old and New Identities, Old and New Ethnicities”, 1997).

Alternative education programs based on indigenous content may provide an opportunity to review existing traditional knowledge and pass it on to others in contemporary context.

Therefore, the notions of ‘emergent cultures’ allows for the possibility that individuals and groups make strategic choices within cultures and about culture (Clifford James, Indigenous Articulation, 2001).

The people of the Chittagong Hill Tracts will need to generate and articulate their own ideas as to what kind of development they want.

The most integral part of indigenous traditions, societal practices, and customs are the various indigenous languages and knowledge that contain those traditions and customs.

Threats to culture are also threats to unique perspectives on life and loss of knowledge. The rapid disappearance of remote cultures is part of a larger global trend since human societies have always interacted and changed.

The case of the Chakma language is similar to the other indigenous groups around the world who are facing problems of exclusion and linguistic colonization.

Governments try to eradicate these languages since retaining native languages can foster resistance to state authority.

Learning a mother language first does not hinder school performance, rather it enhances it (Romaine, 2000), but some parents still believe that they must abandon their traditional language in order to make their children successful.

My research shows that indigenous language deterioration is happening more rapidly to those who are scattered in big cities away from their communities where there are a greater number of native speakers.

Ultimately, the preservation of a language has as much to do with the number of people who can still speak it, and the resources available, as it does with the determination to promote it.

In the efforts of ‘reversing language shift’, language and identity socialization of children must take place in home and community.

Elders need to interact with younger groups (Fishman, Joshua A. Can Threatened Languages Be Saved? Reversing Language Shift, Revisited, 2001) and actively promote native language teaching by assisting the development of language nests and organize community-focused meetings or seminars about language revitalization issues.

Aggressive promotion of language, sometimes coupled with political activism, can ensure the survival of some native languages.

The indigenous people themselves must actively promote the language at home, in their communities and schools.

For an indigenous person in Canada, trying to reconnect with my roots, speaking my own Chakma language reinforces who I am, where I come from and enables me to connect with the people in my homeland.

Abbreviated from original essay. 172 Between

Writer : Arshi Dewan Roy

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