If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, the odds are that you’re a literate person. Either that, or your computer froze on this site by accident and you’ve been left to try to decipher the identity of the geek in glasses, in which case, you would have my apologies if you could read this. In any event, our ability to read is something that we take for granted, thanks to an education system that taught us our ABCs from the time we walked into our first kindergarten class. Though I must admit that my favourite activity from those pre-school days was nap class, even I managed to pick up the basics of the alphabet at a fairly early age. For most of us, reading is as automatic an activity as breathing; we don’t think about it, we just do it. Now, imagine losing that ability and how unsettling that would be. Street signs rendered unfathomable. Newspapers as enigmas. Prices at the grocery store left to the good graces of the clerk assisting you. It’s a very humbling experience.
So, consider me humbled. It was one of the cruelest of ironies that I found myself on Mother Language Day in February no longer being able to read anything around me. The reason, of course, is that the Bangla language is represented by a Bengali script that has nothing to do with the alphabet with which we’re familiar. For example, the Bengali script uses eleven different characters to represent the vowel sounds used, with multiple characters standing for the same vowel, depending on how it is pronounced. So, while we would use the letter “o” for both “vote” and “cot”, different characters are used in the Bengali. And don’t get me started on the consonants and their combinations! Instead, here is the first clause from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a sample:
ধারা ১: সমস্ত মানুষ স্বাধীনভাবে সমান মর্যাদা এবং অধিকার নিয়ে জন্মগ্রহণ করে। তাঁদের বিবেক এবং বুদ্ধি আছে; সুতরাং সকলেরই একে অপরের প্রতি ভ্রাতৃত্বসুলভ মনোভাব নিয়ে আচরণ করা উচিৎ।
Which, of course, translates to:
Dhara êk: Shômosto manush shadhinbhabe shôman môrjada ebong odhikar nie jônmogrohon kôre. Tãder bibek ebong buddhi achhe; shutorang shôkoleri êke ôporer proti bhrattrittoshulôbh monobhab nie achoron kôra uchit.
And this is part of the challenge facing foreigners trying to learn how to read and write in Bangladesh. Even if one is able to learn the intricacies of the Bengali script, one is still left with the significant hurdle that the script represents the Bangla language, so even if one is able to read the script, it would still require translation. As a result, foreigners find that the language must be approached in two stages, with the first being to speak and understand Bangla before being able to write and read it, a prerequisite that will likely doom me to illiteracy during my time here.
This is not for lack of sponsorship on the part of the agency that brought me here. Voluntary Service Overseas provided for an extensive set of language lessons at the HEED Language Centre in Dhaka during our orientation training. HEED stands for Helping Educate Exasperating Dummies (or more officially, Health, Education and Economic Development) and their teaching philosophy with respect to language is to assume that the Bengali script is a boogeyman best kept in the closet and to focus instead on the oral. Arriving at the centre with Kristel and five other rookies, I sat in a waiting room until a handbell was rung to signal the start of class, something I hadn’t seen since Laura graduated from her school on Little House on the Prairie. Following the group, I was led to the small classroom that would be our crucible of learning over the coming weeks. Finding the only left-handed desk in the room (ahem), I took my seat and waited for our teacher to arrive. We exchanged the type of nervous banter common among those about to experience the unknown and glanced at the posters of happy Bangladeshis whose reassuring smiles practically gushed, “You can talk to us!!!”
Our teacher arrived soon after and greeted us with a wary smile that spoke of her experience with Bangla manglers. Not quite suppressing a sigh, she introduced herself, “ Asalam alakum. Amar nam Sultana. Apnar nam ki?”, and all seven of us broke eye contact with her at the same time, which is the universally followed method of avoiding getting picked by the teacher. Finding her victim in the second row, Sultana repeated the question, saying the words with a deliberate slowness that Forrest Gump would have found slightly sluggish. “Apnarrrrr……….naaaaam…….kiiiiii?” she asked again, helpfully pointing at me, to avoid any possibility of misidentification. “Amar nam Glenn?” I asked, as if I were an amnesiac or the victim of a severe head trauma. “Bhalo!” Sultana replied, with a smile that signified my guess was a good one. I tried to contain my pride at this accomplishment, but it was no use. I was already a star, and the others knew it.
Over the next two weeks, we explored some of the key phrases needed to survive in Bangladesh, including “Please slow down” and “Not so much spice, please”. Sultana and I forged a special relationship during those classes, as I became her relief pitcher, the ace who could save the conversation when her questions stumped my classmates. New verb tenses were tested out on me like a champion lab rat, and I wore her “Bhalo!”s like medals on my chest. Conscious that this type of behaviour used to get me beaten up in junior high, I judiciously limited my responses to avoid being too much of a showoff. Finishing off the first series of classes, I wished Sultana well and looked forward to resuming the lessons with her after a short break to explore our placements.
Returning to HEED after six weeks, our group was greeted by the centre’s administrator and was informed that our lessons would now be taken with another teacher, Mr. Polash. My face fell at this news. No Sultana? No more ace relief pitching? This wasn’t bhalo at all. To add to the disappointment, we learned that we also had been bumped from our classroom and would now be taking our lessons on the roof, subject to the capriciousness of the weather and depraved Dhakanian pigeons. I was inconsolable as we trudged up the stairs behind Polash and entered onto the roof into the glare of the early afternoon sun. My anguish was only slightly assuaged by the sight of a proper classroom with four walls and a roof, albeit one that was baked hotter than the sweatbox that Alec Guinness endured in Bridge on the River Kwai.
I tried to make things work with Polash, but the magic just wasn’t there anymore. To a certain extent, he was a victim of his circumstances. The city endured a series of blackouts at that time (that continue to this day) due to a demand for electricity that outstripped supply. No power meant no fans nor airconditioners for the first hour of each lesson, so we all spent our time with one eye on the clock, waiting for that awful hour to be complete. But Polash and I also never really connected in any meaningful way. Compared to Sultana, he wasn’t exactly a ray of sunshine. When we failed to use the possessive form of the pronoun in a sentence during one class, he hung his head and said, “You make me want to kill myself”. While I was pretty sure he was kidding and admired his passion for possessive pronouns, I didn’t want to have that kind of blood on my hands. So, I decided to become a language school dropout. With only a couple of lessons remaining, I knew I wouldn’t be missing much, and there was the opportunity to take further lessons once Kristel and I returned to Chittagong, so I made my excuses and bailed on the classes. I suspect that things will go much smoother with the tutor that we’ve selected, as he seems less interested in perfect grammar than in teaching us the basics of communication. While I doubt that I will ever progress to the point of being able to read and write in Bengali, I hope that I’ll at least be able to understand some of what is being said around me and to respond in some limited way. At this point, that’s the most that this dropout can hope for.