I Speak a Language That Does Not Officially Exist
Updated: Jan 31
By Mace Hoque
The GCLR supports grass roots advocacy efforts and promotes the voices of language advocates around the world by publishing their content on our blog. The views expressed in this post are the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Coalition.
I am a British Bangladeshi, born and raised in the United Kingdom, and I speak Sylheti, a language that does not officially exist. According to prevailing opinion, Sylheti is simply a broken-down dialect of “formal” Bengali. Claiming that Sylheti is a language is risky: I have been inundated with negativity, received vile comments and personal insults, and have even had my life threatened. So why bother?
My personal decision to stand up for Sylheti started with my children. But to understand that, we need to go back much further.
My grandfather fought for the independence of Bangladesh in 1971 and the preservation of the Bengali language. That was the agenda that was presented to him at that time, and he was none the wiser that gaining independence for Bangladesh would mean the demise of the Sylheti language. And even if he could have known, making Bangladesh independent from West Pakistan was more important to him.
Moving on to my father’s generation, they grew up in a period where they had officially gained independence. Bengali was made the national language, and they were focused on the progress of Bangladesh. Having a national language and having a new identity of being Bangladeshi Bengali was accepted without question. The thought of the Sylheti language being swept away never occurred to them. What should have happened was that all the people of Bangladesh should have been given the right to be called Bangladeshi, without having to be labelled as Bengalis. But we were never given this choice, and so now the majority of Sylheti people refer to themselves as Bangladeshi Bengalis and not Bangladeshi Sylhetis.
Coming to my generation, I was brought up to study Bengali for the sake of my education, as the conception was that my Sylheti “dialect” was nothing but a corrupted version of Bengali. Therefore, to progress academically it was essential for me to improve my “formal” Bengali. I was never told that Sylheti was a language. I did not learn that we have our own writing system, Sylheti Nagri, until recently. I travelled to Bangladesh over a dozen times in my life and the majority of those times were for the purpose of study. Yet none of those experiences informed me about my Sylheti heritage.
Now, in the generation of my children, the connection to Bangladesh is less and less strong. My children have travelled only once to Bangladesh, due partly to financial constraints, but also because they consider themselves children of the world more than diaspora Bangladeshis. English is the means of communication in our home, and with other families and social networks. Therefore, the mother tongue has taken a step back. I found myself at unrest when I realised that my children were not able to express themselves in my mother tongue. Although my children can understand Sylheti, they are not able to speak back in the same, and therefore respond in English.
So that is where my journey began. I decided that I would take it upon myself to teach my children my mother tongue and went looking online for resources to assist me. Now, this is where it gets interesting. As I explored the online world, I found that there was a vast amount of resources to learn “formal” Bengali, but there were no resources to teach the Sylheti “dialect”. I was also flabbergasted to find out that Sylheti has its own alphabet, numeric, and writing system.
Up to that point, I had been programmed to believe that my mother tongue, Sylheti, is an informal version of Bengali. But as I examined it more closely, I learned that Bengali and Sylheti have various differences in sound and speech, and it is very apparent for a Bangladeshi person to identify the two from one another.
The majority of the Bangladeshi diaspora in the UK are of Sylheti heritage, but there is no recognition even till today that Sylheti is an independent language in its own right, because that is how we have been indoctrinated. This has many adverse effects. For example, the recent NHS Covid messages to the UK’s Bangladeshi population had to be reconfigured in the Sylheti language, as Sylheti people in general cannot understand “formal” Bengali. Even in areas like Tower Hamlets, which has the highest concentration of Sylheti population in the UK, there are communication issues. When an interpreting service is requested, Bengali is chosen as the option because that is seen as the appropriate language. However, if the interpreter speaks “formal” Bengali, the Sylheti person is unable to understand it if they have never been exposed to that language before. So, there is a clear need for identification and recognition for both languages.
Therefore, despite the challenges, it is important to me that I continue asserting that Sylheti is a language. It is important for my children, but also for the community of Sylheti speakers. Maybe in my children’s time they will be able to say they speak a language that officially exists. My aim in promoting Sylheti is not to be divisive, but to encourage respect and acceptance for our differences and similarities, in order to eradicate misconceptions, prejudice, and superiority and inferiority complexes, while protecting the heritage of multilinguals whose roots go back much further than the short history of a recently-formed nation.