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    Volume 8 Issue 58 | February 20, 2009 |

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The Power of the Mother Tongue

Aasha Mehreen Amin

Photo credit: Anwar Hossain

Our mother tongue is our inner voice, a sound that lies deep within our soul. The tongue we speak in is intertwined with our very identity, it flows out of us as naturally as our breath. This is why when we are on foreign soil we acutely miss the vibrations in our inner being as we speak our own language and the sounds of others speaking in the same tongue. After long periods of time of not speaking our language we become choked, we feel gagged, powerless, lost. We crave those familiar sounds and intonations, those quirky expressions that only have meaning in a particular language. How on earth can you find the English equivalent for instance, of something as distinctively Bangali as obhiman or expressions like chotpot, mormor, ghor ghor or dyab dyab? And while walking on some dreary, lonely, alien road on a cold, drizzling, bleak day, when we suddenly, by some amazing good fortune, hear snatches of conversation in our own tongue, it is like music that warms up the innermost depths of our soul. We greedily drink in those sounds of familiarity. That whiff of home, that connection to our core, that is what our mother tongue is, an invisible umbilical cord.

For those of us who must live far away from our motherland it is not easy to keep our mother tongue alive even in our children especially when they eat, sleep and think in the language of the culture that surrounds them.

Back home we hardly ever think twice about the amazing privilege of being able to speak our language whenever we want to, of reading writing and connecting in the most natural way. We take it so much for granted, speaking our tongue any way we like, in dialect, in colloquial jargon, in adulterated forms with bits of other languages sprinkled here and there; in guttural accents or refined diction, purely, impurely, brazenly--but always confidently.

Yet while we take pride in our own language and the glorious history it has traversed, we often forget to show respect to the mother tongue of others even at home. It is the arrogance typical of majoritarianism to completely ignore and even try to obliterate the language and hence the cultural identity of minority groups. We are so proud of our Bangali nation, our 'Bangali culture' and our language, Bangla, as we rightly deserve to be. But do we ever stop to think that we are part of a much larger picture --our nation is comprised of Bangalis predominantly, but there are Chakmas, Mrongs, Marmas, Mandis, Garos, Santals and so on? All these communities have their own mother tongues, many of them on the brink of extinction. The majority culture may win out in terms of political and economic superiority but by refusing to acknowledge and honour other cultures and mother tongues, the majority community begins to resemble the very oppressors who had once threatened to annihilate their own culture. The Bangali race has always stood up against tyrants and has managed to preserve its distinctiveness in language and culture. Bangalis, however, in certain parts of the country, are seen as unscrupulous looters who have used their position as the majority to erase other cutures for political or economic gain. It is time for Bangalis, while holding on to their cultural pride, to show that they are different from other majority cultures that have shamelessly wiped out the weaker minority. The British, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch colonialists who obliterated indigenous communities or tried to impose their culture as a means of control; the Nazi Germans who carried out the Jewish Holocaust; the Israelis who have massacred millions of Palestines and driven them from their homeland, the South African whites who invented apartheid, the Pakistanis who hated Bangalis enough to try and cripple them through systematic genocide and rape, the examples are cruelly endless.

Do we want to be equated in history with those bigots, racists and murderers? Unfortunately we have already stepped into that diabolical trap.

But change, when it is for the better, is never too late to bring about. While we teach our children our cherished mother tongue and hope that it will carry on in future generations, we must also recognise, respect and help preserve, the mother tongue of others. This is the fundamental principle of tolerance. With tolerance there is harmony, with harmony is unity and with unity comes indomitable strength.

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