In Bangladesh as elsewhere, children belonging to ethnic minority groups, particularly in communities living in far-off places away from markets and administrative centers, face language barriers in adjusting to schools, if and where schools do exist and function. Instead of going into any detailed description or analysis of this relatively well-known problem and its effects, I will illustrate it by sharing a story of a Tripura boy from Khagrachari.

The boy of our story attended a community school where all the students and teachers were Tripura.  Although the medium of instruction was Bangla, he felt relatively comfortable at school since he could converse with fellow students in his first language most of the time. However, things changed when he reached third grade, when his parents decided to send him to a government primary school located outside of his village.  On his first day at the new school, a teacher asked our Tripura boy, in Bangla, questions like where he was from. The boy did not have sufficient command of Bangla to give clear answers to such questions. But instead of being sympathetic to his inability to express himself clearly, the teacher made him stand on the bench as a punishment for his supposed incompetence!

I know the above story very well because I was that boy!

The incident narrated above took place over four decades ago, but the humiliation that I felt that day is still fresh in my mind. Fortunately, I was able to overcome such hurdles relatively quickly, and went on to do well in my studies, with active support and guidance of my parents as well as private tutors and some very supportive teachers. I should add that personally I was in a much more advantageous position compared to most ethnic minority children who may be going through similar experiences throughout the country. My own parents were educated, had good social standing and were quite well-off economically. Our village is located within the boundaries of what is now Khagrachari district headquarter and a municipality.

The first school that I attended was established at the initiative of my parents and other members of the community. I remember the enthusiasm and festive mood with which almost every household of our village contributed one thing or the other to build the school. This was sometime in the late 1960s. I was a student of the first batch of this school. It has long since turned into a government institution. It has a good physical infrastructure now, but it is run as part of highly centralized national system which has little room for flexibility, innovation and meaningful community participation or contribution. So how is this system helping ethnic minority children cope with the linguistic barrier?  This is the issue we examine in the remainder of this piece.

National Textbook Festival has become a new tradition in Bangladesh, where on the 1st of January every year, the government celebrates the launching of freshly printed school textbooks that are made available for free distribution to students attending primary and high schools throughout the country that follow the national curriculum. Around 2011-2012, plans were announced for a small but significant addition to the government school booklist, namely preprimary level textbooks in the languages of up to six ethnic minority groups.  However, those who have been waiting eagerly for the promised goods have been let down for the third successive year already, with concerned government officials usually citing ‘shortage of funds’ as a reason why the missing materials could not be produced, while they also utter words of assurance that ‘the books will there next year’.

It has actually been at least a decade that the government of Bangladesh, through its Ministry of Primary and Mass Education, has been paying lip service to the idea of helping ethnic minority children learn in their mother tongues. For example, as of 2006, this idea was included in a plan for ‘mainstreaming tribal children’ in the context of the Second Primary Education Development Programme that was to be implemented by the government with assistance from its development partners. The role of the development partners is noteworthy because there are indications that it was to satisfy the checklist of some of them that the government agreed, on paper, to pay special attention to what they called ‘tribal children’. But whatever may have been the real reasons, in reality the plans never materialized.

Against the above backdrop, organizations working with ethnic minority children were happy to note that the National Education Policy, finalized in 2010, included the following statement as one of the thirty points constituting the ‘aims, objectives, goals and principles’ of the policy: ‘to facilitate learning in the mother languages of the indigenous peoples and small ethnic groups at the primary level of education’. This intention is restated elsewhere in the same policy document in the following terms: ‘Measures will be taken to ensure the availability of teachers from ethnic groups and to prepare texts in their own languages so that ethnic children can learn their own indigenous languages.’

The attentive reader may note a discrepancy between the two statements quoted above, both taken from an official English version of the National Education Policy, with one statement referring to ‘learning in mother tongue’, whereas the other talks about textbooks meant to help ‘ethnic children learn their mother tongue’. The Bangla version of the same document, however, is less ambiguous because it only talks about helping ‘Adibashi’ children learn their mother tongue, not ‘learning in’ their mother tongue!

While some development practitioners claim that the discrepancy under consideration was merely the result of a typo, this author has reasons to believe that the matter cannot be explained so easily. In any case, the fact that a crucial provision in a key national document is formulated unclearly, and that related plans are yet to be implemented on the ground, suggests that one has to be skeptical as to where all this is going in the long run. Moreover, if we take into account the fact that the constitution of Bangladesh recognizes no indigenous language of the country other than Bangla, then the whole matter demands a critical and holistic re-examination.

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