Saving languages through textbooks in mother tongues: What challenges Bangladesh face?

A shortage of teachers specialised in ethnic languages prompt the authorities to start making a training manual

Kazi Nafia Rahman, Staff
Published : 21 Feb 2024, 09:30 PM
Updated : 21 Feb 2024, 09:30 PM

Out of the 123 students of Belbari Government Primary School in Dinajpur Sadar Upazila, 30 are from ethnic minority groups, mostly Santal. But they do not have textbooks in their languages, and no teachers who can give lessons in these languages.

The pupils’ also lack knowledge of Bangla language because they mostly learn their mother tongue at home, which leads to a crisis in understanding the lessons.

From the very first day of school, these children are left to grapple with words utterly foreign to them despite making up one-fourth of the entire classroom.

Several students also go further down the rabbit hole as they lose interest in pursuing their education due to the language barrier.

According to Headmistress Sabina Yasmeen, these students cannot communicate with their teachers due to a linguistic crisis.

"Their troubles begin from the beginning of school life. The Santal children and those from other ethnic minority groups are unable to express their needs to the teachers. As a result, they do not pay much attention to their studies either," she said.

Children of ethnic minority families living in Bangladesh start to learn Bangla after failing to grasp their academic lessons during the first year of their school.

Yasmeen said many students get frustrated in the process and turn their backs on education.

However, she says she has been successful in bringing some of them back to the classrooms after contacting them again.

The story of Lapol Kora is a vivid example of the struggles ethnic children face outside Dhaka.

"The reason I’ve been able to make it this far is that I was able to overcome the linguistic barrier. Although some of the kids learn to pick up some Bangla phrases independently, they are still unable to read, write and comprehend the language,” said Lapol, now studying drama and dramatics at Jahangirnagar University.

"This hampers their academic growth," he added.

Kora is one of the ethnic groups with the smallest populations in Bangladesh.

Today, 24 of the 28 Kora families in Bangladesh live in the Jhinaikuri village of Biral Upazila in Dinajpur.

The remaining four live in Auliyapur Union's Ghughudanga village.

According to Lapol, a resident of Jhinaikuri village, it is a lot harder for people of the Kora community to educate themselves since there are no written forms of his regional dialect.

According to the 2022 census, Bangladesh has 1.65 million people from around 50 ethnic minority groups, or less than 1 percent of the country’s total population.

The International Mother Language Institute estimates that 14 languages of the minority groups of Bangladesh are in danger of extinction.

Organisations working for indigenous rights claim that the number is much higher.

In 2010, the government launched an initiative to save these languages by including education in mother tongue in the national education policy.

However, very little progress has been made towards this goal in the last 14 years.

In 2017, the children of the Chakma, Marma, Tripura, Garo and Sadri communities received textbooks written in their ethnic dialects.

But since then, no new ethnic languages have been incorporated into the children's textbooks.

Dolly Mrong, a primary school teacher, said Garo students have the school textbooks written in their language, but no teachers who can teach them the lessons in this language.

Despite hailing from the Garo community herself, Dolly does not understand the linguistic form of Garo used in the children's textbooks.

She claims that the books are written in Achik, the authentic Garo form of writing.

"But our regional dialect has changed over the years. If I cannot read what's written in the book, what should I teach the children?" she questioned.

Dolly also expressed her dissatisfaction with the efforts made by the government as she believes that their problems should have been taken into consideration before writing the textbooks.

Students of three other ethnically populous hilly districts of Bangladesh are facing the same issues at school.

U Shei Mong Marma, president of the governing body of Kakrachhari Government Primary School in Khagrachhari, said the Marma children are unable to make academic progress even though they have access to textbooks written in Marma and teachers who can speak their dialect.

"The Marma teachers we have in our school can speak their dialect but do not know how to read the texts in the books or write the language. They are only familiar with some of the texts written there," he said.

U Shei Mong’s daughter, a sixth grader, adapted to reading and writing in Bangla despite having started her education reading Marma textbooks.


No government initiatives have been taken after the development of textbooks in five languages to address the linguistic challenges faced by tribal students.

Non-governmental organisations are working on the issue in some regions. For instance, Gram Bikash Kendra has employed one teacher per pre-primary class in 18 schools across eight unions in Dinajpur Sadar.

These teachers instruct indigenous children in their native languages while ensuring their regular attendance.

In government schools, there are no educators proficient in languages other than Bangla.

Mamata Karmakar, a teacher of Gram Bikash Kendra at Purbo Khushalpur Government Primary School, said she gives lessons up to the second grade in the students’ mother tongue. She also train the teachers.

Previously, children felt scared because of language barriers, but now they can easily make friends and learn, Mamata said.

Shyamal Kanti Singh Roy, the chief coordinator of Gram Bikash Kendra, said their work has reduced school dropouts because of language barriers, increased passing rates, and improved attendance among children from different ethnic backgrounds.

Lapol recounted how during his school days he translated textbooks for Kora-speaking children in his village to help them overcome challenges similar to those he had faced.

Upon leaving his village to prepare for university admission, he resided at a private development organisation called 'Vabna' in Dinajpur.

Realising the educational gap in the village, he asked the organisation for help to create an 'alternative school'.

The 'Kora Pathshala', established by Vabna, accommodates 21 students, some of whom are preparing for school while others are already attending.

"Through this initiative, children can comprehend textbooks in their native language and also learn Bangla," Lapol said.

Subjects such as Mathematics and English are taught in advanced classes, leading to reduced difficulties for the students, he said.

Lapol regretted a lack of such initiatives in the past. "If we had focused on language earlier, it would have made a difference."

Mustafizur Rahman Rupam, the chief executive officer of Vabna, emphasised that language barriers are a distraction for children in school.

He mentioned that teachers at Kora Pathshala come from similar backgrounds, speaking Sadri and having a good understanding of the Kora language.

Rupa Dutta and her friends left their jobs at a private development agency and established Pawmang, a residential primary school run by the local community, at Champajhiri Para in Bandarban’s Lama.

Founded in 2013, the school now has 116 students, 95 percent of whom are Mro.

There are also Chakma, Bengali, Tripura and Khumi students in the school.

Almost all of these students reside in the school's residential facility, known as Pawmang Shishu Sadan.

Rupa expressed concern that tribal children are falling behind because of language barriers. "In my teaching experience, I've observed that writing in Bangla poses challenges for tribal children. Many of them rely on memorisation for writing tasks.

However, when it comes to answering creative questions, they struggle because of their limited proficiency in Bangla, she said.

"They struggle to comprehend words beyond common vocabulary. Moreover, we have a shortage of teachers capable of teaching using the government's prescribed five textbooks. Although Marma, Chakma, or Garo teachers can read, they lack the ability to write in their respective languages. Furthermore, it is difficult for a single teacher to accommodate all languages with children from diverse linguistic backgrounds attending the same school, said Rupa.

She noted that students tend to lose interest and may drop out if they do not comprehend what they are reading.

She also highlighted financial challenges as a contributing factor, especially for hill students transitioning from primary to secondary education who must reside in hostels because of limited schools in the hills.

The additional cost of staying in a hostel, ranging from Tk 1,500 to Tk 2,000 a month, poses difficulties for many families, making it unaffordable for them.


Sabina, the headmistress of the government primary school in Dinajpur, proposed that the government should systematically appoint teachers from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

"In our school, we have students from different ethnic groups, primarily Santal, but we lack teachers who can communicate with them in their native language.

Conversely, in many schools with ethnic minority teachers, there are no students from those communities.

Therefore, it would be beneficial for students if teachers from their tribes were appointed in schools where tribal students are enrolled, she said.

This ensures their right to receive primary education in their mother tongue, she added.

Farha Tanzim Titil, an assistant professor at Islamic University in Kushtia, is actively involved in many initiatives to support tribal communities. One of her projects focuses on language education for Hajong children, aiming to provide them with opportunities to learn in their own language.

Referencing research data published in Indigenous Navigator, she highlighted that in Bangladesh, 40 percent of Hajong children fail to complete their education up to the fifth grade of primary school and end up dropping out.

According to Titil, one contributing factor is the lack of access to education in their mother tongue. Other challenges include poverty, lack of awareness, distant schools, and insecurity.

Shourav Sikder, a linguist who headed the development of textbooks for five ethnic groups, pointed out that the challenge continues because the process of educating these groups in their mother tongue remains incomplete.

He criticises the government's negligence in addressing this issue.

"Books in other languages are not available yet, and work to create books in five more languages is ongoing. This will be done gradually. Once we complete the tasks of creating textbooks, appointing teachers for those languages, and providing them with training will benefit the students.

“While textbooks may be ready, the government must understand that the task is not yet complete. The Ministry of Primary and Mass Education and the National Curriculum and Textbook Board, or NCTB, have a role to play in finalising this process.”

The ministry should prioritise the appointment and training of teachers based on the number of children belonging to each ethnic group, Sikder suggested.

The Dhaka University linguistics professor stated, "I've been involved in committees for this issue, but no meetings have been held in two years. Some of us created a plan, but we're unsure of its progress because of lack of coordination."

Sikder, who conducted the Bangladesh Anthropo-linguistics Survey, believes these ethnic groups also share responsibility for slow progress in promoting education in their languages.

Children naturally learn to speak and understand, but need to be taught to read and write. Bangla-speaking children also face challenges in reading and writing but overcome these issues in school.

It is important to explain the benefits of learning in one's mother tongue to these ethnic groups, he said.

“Some wrongly think learning Bangla or English leads to better job prospects, but it's crucial for overall knowledge. The government needs to address this."


NCTB Chairman Prof Md Farhadul Islam expressed dissatisfaction with the experience of providing textbooks in five languages.

"We aim to implement this properly. Writing books in five languages without proper implementation is pointless. Therefore, we are proceeding with caution. We have recently completed the training manual for the teachers.

"We plan to train them soon. They have received training before, and we will assess their improvement after this round of training. It's not just about government funding; the respective ethnic groups need to show interest as well."

Acknowledging the shortage of teachers, Prof Farhad mentioned, "There is also a scarcity of scripts in many languages, and discussions on which script to use for textbooks are ongoing. We are collaborating with them on this.

"We spent 13 days revising the textbooks with their input. While the government plays a crucial role in this endeavour, leaders of their language groups must also take responsibility for preserving their language."