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A Language of their Own: Bangladeshi New Yorkers Reflect on Identity

ASEEM SHULKA, HOST: Today is the United Nations’ International Mother Language Day, and New Yorkers speak more than 650 languages. Ciara Long caught up with one New York group for whom this holiday is especially important.

CIARA LONG, BYLINE: A dozen kids sit on a brightly-colored floor mat, practicing a song. They’re at the Bangladeshi Academy of Fine Arts, or BAFA, where they’ve been practicing songs, dances and poetry readings for International Mother Language Day for weeks. Janathul Ara, a Bengali teacher at BAFA, says that passing language on to kids is crucial to Bangladeshi identity.

JANATHUL ARA: We have to carry this, for the nation, for the next generation.

LONG: Ara is gluing red fake flowers to a cardboard wreath. Today, she’ll be placing that wreath under BAFA’s replica of the Shaheed Minar, a national monument in Bangladesh that commemorates February 21.

The holiday’s beginnings go back to 1948, when Bangladesh was part of Pakistan. Sayeeda Farheem, a 23-year-old Bangladeshi student at Columbia’s Teachers College, explains.

SAYEEDA FARHEEM: We were not allowed to speak Bangla as our language. They tried to have Urdu as the state language, and as Bengali, we really fought against that.

LONG: In 1952, after four years of protests, police killed a student demonstrator in Dhaka. It was only then that the government granted Bengali official language status.

FARHEEM: This is the day our language was officially given to us. I’m honored. I’m so honored. I’m really happy that it started with us and now people are starting to realise that language is so important, you know, it’s so unique to everyone.

LONG: And as people move around the world they take their languages with them,

so tracking languages can reveal migration patterns, says Ross Perlin. He’s the codirector of the Endangered Language Association, a nonprofit that preserves languages across New York City.

ROSS PERLIN:  An example of that would be the Seke language in Brooklyn, which has 700 speakers in the world from five villages in Nepal, but about a hundred of those speakers or more now are living in a couple of buildings in Brooklyn.

LONG: The ELA has placed the hundreds of mother languages spoken by New Yorkers onto a map of the city.

PERLIN: You see how microcosms form, how West Africa is reflected in the Bronx.

LONG: Perlin says that regional languages are at risk of disappearing. If your mother language is regional, you often have to learn at least one other language to communicate with people outside of that area. But Perlin says that for many people, speaking their mother language is fundamental to their identity.

PERLIN: It’s a matter of justice and it’s an issue of linguistic diversity being held by the most marginalized people in the world.

LONG: For some people, speaking your mother language itself is an act of resistance. I’m Ciara Long, with Uptown Radio.


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