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Learning in your mother tongue

What is the experience of Bangladesh introducing indigenous language textbooks for ethnic minority kids?

Bijoy Dhar, Nuruchsafa Manik and S Bashu Das from CHT, Bangladesh

Are indigenous language textbooks making a difference in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh?

Following a government decision in 2017, the National Curriculum and Textbook Board took the long overdue decision to publish primary school textbooks in indigenous languages – mainly Chakma, Marma and Tripura – to facilitate learning in ethnic minority communities.

The problems identified were two-fold – many indigenous children who did not speak Bangla as their mother language were struggling to keep up in school, while others, because they were learning and writing solely in Bangla, were forgetting their mother tongue.

As a result, the introduction of textbooks in indigenous languages were welcomed as a step in the right direction by all quarters. But how effective has this initiative been so far? 

Learning in mother language is reducing dropout rates

According to the District Primary Education Office, 1,22,034 indigenous language textbooks have been distributed in Rangamati from 2017, and 723 teachers have been trained to teach in these mother tongues so far. 

Rangamati school teachers Jonaki Tripura and Deepushring Lepcha both believe that after the introduction of the textbooks, the rate of dropouts amongst indigenous children have fallen significantly.

For 2019, a list of 874 teachers have already been submitted to the District Council for more of these training programmes. 

“Most of my students are happy with the books being in their mother tongue,” shares Jonaki Tripura, “and being able to use the language they speak at home in their daily lives at school as well, not just in speaking but in learning, also gives them the confidence to do better in their exams.” 

This view was reiterated by Suimathui Marma – “my grandson Indra Chakma can now not only speak Chakma at home with his family, but he can write it too, and this makes us very happy.”  

However Ranjan Tanchanga, head master at Dighalchhari Government Primary School in Belaichhari upazila, Rangamati, stressed on the importance of training teachers alongside making the textbooks available as well. 

“While we have textbooks in the students’ mother tongues, a lack of training for our teachers can often get in the way of our teaching,” he said.  

Lack of  training still a mountain to climb

This deficit in teachers’ training is far more obvious in Khagrachhari. Coupled with an insufficient number of teachers and classrooms, the state of education in indigenous languages is a lot bleaker in this Chittagong Hill Tracts district. 

According to the Khagracchari District Primary Education Office, there are 30,129 Chakma, Marma and Tripura students in pre-primary and up to second grade education in the district in 2019.

While the National Curriculum and Textbook Board has taken the initiative to provide textbooks up to the second grade level, the lack of trained teachers means that most of these books are gathering dust. 

“I know how to speak in Marma, but I never had the opportunity to learn the Marma alphabets properly,” shared Soyebhaong Marma, assistant teacher at Thakurchora Government Primary School. “I am afraid that I do not have the ability to teach them to my students either,” he added regretfully. 

Fatema Meher Yasmin, primary education officer at Khagracchari district, spoke of how despite repeated requests for teacher training to the Directorate of Primary Education, no arrangements have been made in the last few years. 

“We are hoping that this training will be organized during the current academic year,” she shared.  

However on a local level, the Khagracchari Hill District Council has organized a month-long training programme for 90 teachers in the Chakma, Marma and Tripura languages. 

Other indigenous communities still struggling with language

The absence of proper training for teachers was also widely mentioned as a problem in Bandarban, but there was another issue that frequently came up as well.

While the indigenous language textbooks are in three languages, there are over 11 indigenous groups residing in Bandarban, and a large number of children who speak languages other than Chakma, Marma and Tripura. 

“These children are still being left out of the education system,” shared Zahed Sarwar, head master at Nunarbil Government Primary School in Lama upazila, Bandarban.

“They are still struggling to keep up in classes and on top of that, we are also struggling to provide trained teachers who can teach in the languages that the children understand.” 

This is also the case in the Chitrarata Chakma Government Primary High School in Ghonapara in Ruma Upazila. According to assistant teacher Uksing Marma, “we have the textbooks we need, but we can only teach Marma – we don’t have any Chakma or Tripura teachers even, let alone teachers who can teach in any of the other languages.” 

However, the Bandarban Ethnic People’s Cultural Institute has been organizing programs twice a year to try and train teachers in indigenous languages, including Mro and Chak.

“While this is a good initiative, we need to have more interest from official arenas regarding the languages that aren’t included in textbooks,” shared Ma Shue Theu Chak, in-charge at Bandarban Public Library, “and we also have to stock books in indigenous languages in public libraries too and not just focus on textbooks. This is the only way to get children and young people to really engage with these languages.”  

Bandarban was not the only district where the need for preserving and supporting the language diversity in the Chittagong Hill Tracts came up. 

“There are 13 other indigenous communities, other than Chakma, Marma and Tripura, who also live in Rangamati,” said Rangamati schoolteacher Deepushring Lepcha, “and we need to also focus on their languages and cultures and bring them into mainstream education.”  

The authors are Rangamati, Khagracchari and Bandarban correspondents for Dhaka Tribune  

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