Grassroots initiative seeks to revive threatened languages of Bangladesh.
Photograph by Alex Treadway, National Geographic
Tim Brookes at work. Photograph courtesy Tim Brookes
Published June 28, 2013
Part of our First Person series, where we invite writers to share personal stories.
For Maung, a culturally relevant curriculum must be taught in the language the child speaks at home—the language the child is already learning and is using to find out about the world.
In June 2012 Maung and I set up a partnership to create and publish his schoolbooks and, we hope, to help save the languages that sustain the cultures of the Hill Tracts.
Of the world's 6,000-plus languages, half are expected to be extinct by the end of the century.
I knew nothing about this linguistic catastrophe until four years ago, when more or less by accident I began carving the alphabets of endangered languages.
I'd spent my life as a nonfiction writer, with no pretensions to be a visual artist, when one Christmas I decided to make gifts for my family by carving their names in boards of Vermont maple, with the bark still on and a beautiful ripple in the grain.
These came out surprisingly well, and in casting around for something else to carve, I stumbled on Omniglot.com, an online encyclopedia of the world's hundred or more writing systems.
Their range and variety were amazing. Some were alphabets with symbols to represent all the vowels and consonants. Some were syllabaries, in which each symbol represented a syllable, and some were abjads, consisting mostly or entirely of consonants.
Some were astonishingly graceful and fluid (the Balinese script looks like a flock of birds), while others were minimal, ornate, or downright exotic: The Dongba script used by the Naxi people in China includes baffling pictograms that look like folding chairs and jellyfish.
My most striking and disturbing discovery, though, was that fully a third are in danger of extinction.
I decided to carve some of the scripts to draw attention to the problem of language loss and cultural erosion. The carvings have since been exhibited in schools, libraries, and universities across the United States and Europe.
Working with a set of gouges and a paintbrush, I created several dozen pieces depicting words, phrases, sentences, or poems in vanishing alphabets from all over the world, including three scripts of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh: the Mro, Marma, and Chakma.
At the time I had no idea I would meet a member of the Marma people, a remarkable man named Maung Nyeu, and that we would collaborate on a preservation project that may become a model of how to reverse linguistic decline and the cultural collapse that goes with it.
Why Do Scripts Matter?
"Scripts are a hugely important aspect of culture," write Martin Raymond and Lorna Evans of ScriptSource, the world's leading authority.
Writing is intimately associated with cultural identity. Each writing system tells the tale of its culture's history, its evolving technology, even its deeply embedded values.
In sub-Saharan Africa alone, more than a dozen scripts have been formulated for indigenous languages since 1900.
"The N'Ko script," Raymond and Evans note, "was originally created in 1949 for Bambara, one of the Manding languages of Mali, which, at that time, was written using the Latin script.
"N'Ko script was adopted by other Manding language groups because, unlike Latin, it was seen as a script of their culture. N'Ko has become one of the most widely used indigenous African scripts, and it has strengthened the Manding cultural identity."
Photograph courtesy Tim Brookes
If scripts are vital to a society, why do they die?
For the same reason languages die. One culture is dominated by another (economically, militarily, politically, and/or technologically), sometimes with extreme consequences: Shong Lue Yang was assassinated by Laotian troops for creating a script for the Hmong.
Suppression of indigenous peoples is happening right now in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh.
Bangladesh's Imperiled Cultures
I must confess that when I started my project, my interest in carving and exhibiting scripts was a little theoretical—after all, I couldn't actually read or write what I was carving, and I had never seen language or script endangerment up close.
All that changed in June 2012, when I first met Maung Nyeu, in Boston.
He had stumbled on my website and seen, to his amazement, that someone not only knew about the threatened languages of the Hill Tracts but had actually carved them.
The Hill Tracts, a forested upland area in southeastern Bangladesh, are home to more than a dozen indigenous peoples who are distinct from the majority Bengali population in language, culture, and religion.
Over the past two decades, the region has become increasingly militarized, and traditional farmlands have been given to Bengali settlers.
According to Amnesty International, the Bangladeshi government's failure to address legal rights to traditional lands in the eastern Chittagong Hill Tracts has left tens of thousands landless.
Local people are trapped in a cycle of violent clashes with Bengali settlers.
Villages and temples have been burned, and indigenous women and girls have been abducted to be sold into the sex trade. Massacres have been documented.
Lack of education and language collapse are pernicious threats: More than half of the indigenous people of the Hill Tracts have no formal schooling.
For those who start school, fewer than 8 percent complete primary education, and only 2 percent secondary.
This isn't surprising, because instruction is in Bangla, which most Hill Tracts children don't understand.
Adding injury to insult, indigenous children are often abused by teachers and students from the country's largest ethnic group, Bengalis. Maung himself suffered mistreatment.
In a single generation, Maung said, he has seen his people go from living as self-sufficient farmers on ancestral lands to being vagrant day laborers scattered across Bangladesh and into India and Myanmar.
Remarkably, Maung flouted the norm, earning a degree in engineering at the University of Hawaii, then an MBA from the University of Southern California.
He returned to the Hill Tracts to build the Padamu Residential Education Center, a school on the grounds of a Buddhist temple, so the children of the Hill Tracts could be educated in their own languages.
Classes began in 2008. Change was immediately apparent: Children who had seemed destined to be domestics or day laborers announced their intention to be doctors and teachers.
But most of the students could no longer speak their own ethnic language.
So Maung came back to the U.S., to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, to learn how to create a culturally relevant curriculum that would revive the dying languages of the Hill Tracts.
At the nearby Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he sought out the advice of the philosopher and linguist Noam Chomsky.
"He was very kind and very attentive," Maung said. "His recommendation was that it is possible to preserve a language, but it needs to start with the children, preferably as part of their curriculum."
Also, the material being taught must be familiar. Maung remembered that at school he had to learn by heart William Wordsworth's poem "Daffodils."
"I had never seen a daffodil!" he laughed. "I had no idea what it looked like. We have all sorts of plants and flowers, but I never saw a daffodil until I came to the United States!"
Maung has collected more than 40 stories passed down in the villages of the Hill Tracts. The stories involve mountains and trees and animals the children already know—tales they may have heard from their parents and grandparents.
He is beginning the process of having them translated into Mro, Marma, and Chakma, writing them out, getting them illustrated in a visual idiom familiar to the children, and getting them published.
He faces an additional challenge. Most people in these groups still speak their traditional languages, but very few can now read and write their unique scripts.
That's where I came in.
I recruited a calligrapher at Louisiana State University to take the handwritten forms of the scripts and turn them into works of art.
I enlisted a typographer from Anglia University in England to make Mro, Marma, and Chakma fonts so that the books can be digitally printed.
I hand-carved texts in each of the three languages.
A friend, using a laser, experimented with burning the scripts into mahogany boards. Some are now on display in community centers in the Hill Tracts.
One of Maung's fellow Harvard students created illustrations for the first book.
This fall, students of mine from Champlain College, in Burlington, Vermont, will help write, edit, design, and illustrate the next books bound for Padamu.
Signs of Revival
Reversing the decline of a language is a Herculean task, and there are no guarantees that Maung will succeed.
But there are signs that the tide of globalism that has been eroding indigenous cultures and their languages may be turning.
Some of the same multinational corporations that are creating a global online culture recognize that they can play a positive part.
Apple and Google in particular have shown an interest in endangered languages. One example: Macs, iPhones, Google, and Gmail now recognize the Cherokee syllabary.
And in the Philippines, where the pre-Spanish script called Baybayin was widely believed to be extinct, the government has now adopted Baybayin symbols on its banknotes as an anti-counterfeiting device.
So there is hope—but there is also urgency.
"In medicine," Maung explained, "there is a window of time—maybe a few minutes to two hours, called the golden hour—where if the person can get to the ER, the chance of survival increases. For our children, their golden hour is between the ages of four or five and twelve. If we don't get them in school during this time, we won't get them at all."
Tim Brookes is founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project and author of 13 books, including Endangered Alphabets. His website is www.endangeredalphabets.com.
Brookes and Maung Nyeu will speak about endangered alphabets and the Chittagong Hill Tracts at 1:15 p.m., June 28, at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.How to help: To raise funds for schoolbooks for the children of the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Maung founded a nonprofit organization, Our Golden Hour, where donations can be made.