Keeping Bengali Alive in a New Home

Sajed Kamal smiled as two people on his left and right pulled taut a gold ribbon. With black office scissors poised at the ready, the 71-year-old poet and photographer stood, momentarily motionless, so the cameras of ethnic media outlets in front of him could ‘click, click, click.’ Then, to applause, he inaugurated a local Bengali Book Fair at Muktadhara, a small but stocked to the ceiling bookstore, in Jackson Heights last week.

It was the first of many programs planned by the city’s Bangladeshi community to celebrate International Mother Language Day, which was on 21 February. UNESCO established the global celebration in 1999 to recognize all mother tongues, but for Bangladeshis in their home country and abroad, the day has had a special and historical significance for many more decades. In 1948, when Bangladesh was East Pakistan, the government refused to consider Bengali as one of the state languages, despite it being the mother tongue of more than half its citizens. To push for the language’s recognition, Bengali students and civilians rallied together at Dhaka University on 21 February 1952.

Among the demonstrators was Kamal’s mother, Sufia Kamal, a famous poet and political activist. “I know Ma was on the street that day,” says Sajed, who was eight years old at the time. “She was leading a procession.”

Police fired on the peaceful protest, causing several deaths. The events of that day spurred on the Bengali Language Movement and served as a precursor to the 1971 civil war and the birth of Bangladesh. Since 1953, Bangladeshis have commemorated every 21 February as Language Martyr’s Day, ensuring that the fight and sacrifice for Bengali, or Bangla as they call it, is never forgotten. For New York’s Bangladeshi community – the city’s fast growing and seventh largest Asian community – celebrating the day is an important part of retaining their cultural identity.

Last weekend, temporary replicas of the Shaheed Minar, a national martyr monument in Bangladesh, were erected across the city. A dozen ceremonies and cultural programs were also hosted, to mark the day, including outside the United Nations and in community halls in Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. All this was not just to pay tribute to the language martyrs, but to keep the tradition of their language and their culture alive for the next generation.

“Language is culture, you can’t teach one without the other,” says Dwijen Bhattacharyja, a Bengali language lecturer at Columbia University and a bilingual teacher at the city’s only Bengali bilingual program high school, John Adams High School in Queens.

Bangladeshi immigrants, whose population has grown from under 5,000 in 1990 to over 66,000 in the latest census, are becoming an integral and visible community in New York City. Significant numbers of Bangladeshis work as taxi drivers (23 percent of yellow cab drivers), in construction, and running fast-food franchises like Subway sandwich shops or Dunkin’ Donuts. Thirty percent of the population are thought to be under 18 and according to the city’s education department, Bengali is the third most spoken non-English language after Spanish and Chinese among its students.

“In a 10-block radius of our school, there is a growing Bengali-speaking community,” says Zakir Uddin, a parent coordinator for P.S. 214 in Brooklyn, who adds that of the 1,000 students currently enrolled in the East New York school, 45 percent come from a Bengali-speaking home. And the school isn’t alone. Thirty percent of the students down the road at P.S. 159 are Bengali as is almost 45 percent of the student population of P.S. 64 in Ozone Park.

Uddin’s school has offered parents the option to enroll their children in a Bengali bilingual program since 2013. But not enough parents have registered their interest so the program has not really begun in earnest yet. It needs a minimum of 15 interested students, according to Uddin.

Despite the thousands of Bengali-speaking students in New York’s public school system, there seems to be a lack of interest in pursuing a bilingual education. “Children growing up here, including my own daughter, don’t see any reason to learn Bangla because it’s not practical, unlike say Spanish, which you need if you want to practice medicine, teach or do business in the city,” says language teacher Bhattacharyja.

While those raised by two Bengali-speaking parents retain conversational fluency in the language, he says, only a handful are interested in connecting deeper with their heritage enough to pursue further studies to learn how to read and write the language and understand Bangladesh’s history.

Young Bangladeshis, who recently arrived, are even less likely to want to study Bengali, but are more likely to benefit from it, says Bhattacharyja. He explains that with a stronger academic foundation in their native language, Bangladeshi students would find it easier to learn the grammar and syntax of “useful” languages like English or Spanish.

For the elder Bangladesh generation, pushing their children to know Bengali is more than just about learning a language, however. It’s also about trying to keep Bengali culture alive. For years, the community, which now has roots in places like Jackson Heights, Ozone Park, Astoria in Queens and Parkchester in the Bronx, has relied on places of worship and cultural organizations such as Bangladesh Institute of Performing Arts, based in Long Island City, to take the lead, for example, when it comes to exposing children to Bengali song and dance.

As part of the effort to retain Bengali culture, Udisa Chowdhury, a global health student at NYU, started the Shorolipi Cultural Group in Jamaica, Queens, with her parents in 2010. (Shorolipi means musical notes.) “When I moved to the USA, the first time I performed at a temple, I noticed that children were not interested in participating in the programs,” said the 19-year-old in a chat over Facebook. “They did not enjoy Bangla music. They had no idea about what the song or dance is about.” She told her parents she wanted to change that by giving children in the community singing lessons in Bengali to foster a love for Bangladeshi culture.

“We mostly work with children under 12 years old who are our neighbors,” Chowdhury says. She juggles her undergraduate studies with weekly classes for her five to 10 regular students. “I get to engage with the children more closely, tell them stories, explain to them the meaning of different words, how to pronounce the words correctly and make the learning and teaching fun and interactive rather than just showing them how to sing the song,” she says. “I personally believe that once you sow the seed of passion and interest, either in dancing or singing, at an early age, they will ultimately carry it on for the rest of their lives.”

For International Language Day, a Shorolipi group of 10 students performed a dance-drama in Sunnyside, Queens, choreographed by Chowdhury’s mother and narrated by her father.

Sajed Kamal, who is also an adjunct lecturer at Brandeis University, agrees that organic teaching is much more important and effective than the practice of parents forcing children to learn their native language and religious practices. “Bringing up a child with freedom and respect for the child are more important to making the child the way you want them,” he says.

That is also exactly what the language martyrs wanted from their government — the right and respect to practice the language of their choice.