Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Country Profile: The Languages of Bangladesh

This week we're turning our attention to Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world. This South Asian country is home to over 160 million people, making it the eighth most populous country despite its small geographic size.

The Official Language

The official language of Bangladesh is Bengali, an Indo-Aryan language which is the native language of over 98% of the country's population. The English language is also widely used in Bangladesh, though it does not have official status in the country. However, it is used in many important areas of daily life including education, government, media, business, and law. English has been an important language in Bangladesh since the country's colonial era as part of the British Empire. Some consider it to be a de facto co-official language of Bangladesh due to its widespread use in the country.

While Bengali, also known as Bangla, is the native language of the vast majority of the Bangladeshi population, the country is also home to various minority languages. These can be divided into four language families: Indic languages, Tibeto-Burman languages, Austro-Asiatic languages, and Dravidian languages.

A beautiful Buddhist temple in Rangamati, Bangladesh.
Indo-Aryan Languages

Several Indo-Aryan languages and language varieties are spoken by Bangladeshis. The Assamese language, primarily spoken in India, is sometimes considered to be part of a dialect continuum with Bengali, though most linguists believe it to be a completely separate language. Another important indigenous language is Chakma, which is closely related to both Assamese and Bengali and is spoken by around 300,000 people in the southeast of Bangladesh.

Tibeto-Burman Languages

Bangladesh is also home to several Tibeto-Burman languages which are primarily spoken in the country's mountainous areas. These indigenous languages include several of the Chin languages, also known as the Kukish languages, Garo, and Megam. Garo, also spoken in neighboring India, has approximately 1 million native speakers throughout the world, and is closely related to the Megam language.

Austro-Asiatic Languages

A few Austro-Asiatic languages are spoken by indigenous groups in eastern and northern Bangladesh. The Khasi language, spoken by the Khasi people, is known for its rich folklore which provides stories that explain the meaning behind its words for natural features, plants, and animals. Other Austro-Asiatic languages include Koda, which is endangered due to its dwindling number of speakers, and Mundari, which is spoken by just over 1 million people in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh.

Dravidian Languages

Finally, we've reached the Dravidian language family. The western region of Bangladesh is home to two Dravidian languages, Kurukh and Sauria Paharia. Kurukh is an indigenous language that boasts approximately 2 million native speakers, while Sauria Paharia, spoken by a tribe of the same name, has under 100,000 native speakers.