The Bengali Language Movement
If thought corrupts language then language can corrupt thought.
My country of origin is a little place called Bangladesh. Established in 1971, it is so new that my parents are older than it. However, it has a culture and language that has existed for millennia. Following the partition of Pakistan and East Bengal (later East Pakistan) into one separate Muslim state from India but leading up to the Liberation War, Pakistan’s government, which governed both people, decided it would invoke a single National Language, Urdu. Despite being the more populous state, East Pakistan did not like this idea given that most of its inhabitants spoke Bengali.
The students of the University of Dhaka and other political activists defied the law and organized a protest on February 21st, 1952. The movement reached its climax when police killed student demonstrators. After years of conflict, the central government relented and granted official status to the Bengali language in 1956. In 2000, UNESCO declared February 21st International Mother Language Day in tribute to the Language Movement and the ethno-linguistic rights of people around the world.
Pakistan continuously failed to recognize the non-essential rights of their indigenous inhabitants, which led to war and East Pakistan forming an independent, secular state named Bangladesh. The Language movement itself didn’t lead to the separation of the countries; consistent shitty treatment and bureaucratic unfairness did. It did, however, spark change. Language was so essential to the Bengali soul, that to infringe upon it took things to a whole new level.
My family saw their language threatened and their people fought to keep it from being wiped from existence. Now, I see the same thing happening here in the U.S. with the major population of Spanish speakers. Language is important. Language is identity. I cannot speak expertly on the history of the Chicano/immigrant experience with language, but I do know that “Spanglish” has a whole movie about it starring Adam Sandler.
My experience with connecting Spanish in the U.S. and my own language starts in high school, where like many people lucky enough to be in a school system that exposes them to other cultures, I was offered the chance to read a book called Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez. It was not through ethnic identity that I related to Dr. Rodriguez; it was through our common language that I saw myself in his experiences. Rodriguez grew up in America and spoke English fluently (the guy went to Stanford and is an acclaimed American author… so yeah). Yet, “our” language was not just the English language or the Spanish language, but the language of first generation immigrants. I could relate to Rodriguez’s writing, it opened up years of a repressed desire to explore how being an immigrant shaped my experiences in this country. In one passage he describes how as a child, he felt ashamed when his parents could not speak English properly and how often they held back from doing normal things because of their inability to master the English language. How his otherwise powerful father was clumsy and weak in communicating with English speakers. I felt terrible for the way we felt for our parents, but at the same time relief to know that I wasn’t alone.
This is why English shouldn’t be established as the official language of the United States. In a sense, it already is. But making such a mandate into law would not only intimidate migrants (and those native to this land for millennia,) it would send the wrong message about the diversity of the U.S. I know that practicality and laziness can never be a valid enough reason to erase a major population’s identity. English gives the American people identity and so does Spanish. Hey, it works for Canada, they embrace both their national languages.
While the Bengali Language Movement evoked ethnic nationalism, the Language movement in the U.S. is about embracing diversity. Sometimes I speak about this country from the outside looking in, forgetting that I’ve spent 90% of my life here. It’s probably because that can still be ripped away from me at any point. But we (undocumented youth) create the history of this country by inhabiting it. And while I respect the sovereignty of this nation, even as a resident without papers, I am not afraid to point out the inconsistencies between the collectively agreed upon values of this country to accept diversity versus those values of xenophobia that are borne out of fear and do not represent the sentiment of the people. We should embrace all of our languages. Because only then can we begin to truly understand one another.
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
― Nelson Mandela
Minhaz is the creator of Undocublog. He likes to write nonsensical bullshit and watch sappy movies. He also likes to gamble.