Frequently Asked Questions
The decision is based on several factors.
(a) The day-to-day work on compiling the dictionary is being done as a project by a group of amazing students in the Publishing in my 21st Century class at Champlain College in Burlington, Vermont. My students are creating a list of 150 basic grade-appropriate words. Many of these (as the students know) will either be culturally askew, or may make generic/specific assumptions that are false (my students may propose "deer," for example, when the kids in the CHT refer to different deer as specific animals and have no word for the class of "deer"), which is why their list will be more than 100.
(b) The teachers in the Hill Tracts are going to be asked to provide a list of words they think will be most useful in their class work.
(c) Some words, such as "Thursday," may be very hard to illustrate.
(d) Nouns tend to be easier to illustrate than verbs, but we’re hoping that won’t limit us.
Ultimately the decision will be made by Our Golden Hour and the teachers--and by extension the community we're hoping to serve.
I am grateful to the students in Mark Turin’s class on the Lexicography of Endangered Languages at the University of British Columbia for these questions.Last updated:
It's certainly not a dictionary in that, by encompassing six languages, it cannot be alphabetic! It also will not include etymology, illustrations of usage in respectable literature, or a phonetic guide to pronunciation. But it's a dictionary in that it is a catalogue of useful words.Last updated:
Practical first, symbolic later.Last updated:
We're in the process of recruiting illustrators right now. They're from all over the place, the main criterion being whether they can work on subjects and in an idiom that works for the kids. Ironically the frog image that we're using for the campaign and is (I believe) the favorite image of those in the schools was painted by a Champlain College student who, working from photos from the region, illustrated the book Frog and Lion, which will be the next storybook published by Our Golden Hour. Books for the Kickstarter backers will be printed in the US; books for the kids in the CHT will be rinted in India or Bangladesh. And by "rinted" I mean "printed." Of course.Last updated:
The four local languages are by far the most common in the OGH schools--in fact, I think they're the only languages spoken as mother tongues by kids in those schools. We added Bangla because sooner or later it will behoove these kids to know the national language, and English because sooner or later it may behoove these kids to know the colonial/global language.Last updated:
In 2011 I visited Bangladesh for the second time to do some public health work. While I was there I inquired whether the country had any endangered alphabets, and was fortunate enough to meet members of the Mro, Marma and Chakma communities, and to leave with text to carve. In 2012 I received an email, though my website, from Maung Nyeu, a graduate student at Harvard. A Marma, he had been stunned to see, halfway around the world, photos of my carvings in Marma, Chakma and Mro.
We met in Cambridge and he told me of his astonishing journey from the remote upland region of his birth to Harvard via degrees at the University of Hawaii and USC, and the project that had become his life’s work: developing schools in the Hill Tracts where indigenous children could be educated in their own languages.
The situation is grimly familiar. Public education in Bangladesh takes place, by law, in Bangla, the official national language. For many of the children in the Hill Tracts, Bangla is not even their second language, and not surprisingly the results are dismal: no more than two percent of all children of the region finish their schooling. As with many indigenous people, their hopes and opportunities are handicapped almost from birth.
This practice is based, by the way, on the double belief that (a) it’s more important for a child to learn the national language as it is the lingua franca of government, commerce, and so on, and therefore (b) it’s better for the child to learn the national language from the get-go, as it will be harder to learn at an older age.
Not true. A growing body of research shows that learning in one’s mother tongue is not a drawback when it comes time to learn a second or national language—in fact, studies of Inuit children whose first education is in Inuktitut show they actually read and write English better, when they switch to English-language schools, than those who speak English from birth.
Hearing Maung’s story opened up an entirely new branch of the Endangered Alphabets. At first I carved signage in Mro, Marma and Chakma for these unusual schools, having learned that signs convey authority: many of these children had never even seen their own languages in writing, and I wanted to give them a sense that their language and culture was dignified and worthy of respect.
Then Maung and I recruited a team of students, academics and professionals--writers, editors, copy-editors, illustrators, typographers, videographers and artists—to create classroom materials in the endangered languages and alphabets of the Hill Tracts. We have run Kickstarter campaigns that raised more than $10,000 and used those funds to publish four children’s readers based on folk tales from the region, alphabet wall charts, rubber letter stamps, writing journals, an anthology of folk tales and proverbs, and the first coloring books to be seen in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. As this article goes to press more than 600 indigenous children have been admitted to three schools, where they are doing what we hope children do the world over: learning their alphabets.Last updated:
Are their schools also teaching them to read and write in a tongue which isn’t endangered? Or are are these children being raised to be functionally illiterate should they ever wish to leave the region of their birth?
Yes, it may seem from the outside that those are the two options, but in reality that is not the case, either in the Hill Tracts or elsewhere. Let's take a clearer analogy. In 19th-century Vermont, where I live, children of French immigrants were taught in English, along the lines of the American "melting-pot" myth. In reality they sat in class confused, ostracized, the victims of sarcasm and often beatings by their teachers and verbal and physical abuse by their classmates. Some of them learned some English, which was probably of some value, but at what cost? What they mostly learned was that as Frenchies they were a despised minority. The same has been true for, say, Cherokee children at Christian schools in the U.S. and Aboriginal children at white schools in Australia. In these three schools founded by Our Golden Hour and the local communities in the Hill Tracts, children learn first respect for themselves and their own culture and language, and they transition into learning Bangla, the national language. Here's the final kicker: research coming out of Canada is showing that Inuit children who first learn their own language and then transition to English-speaking schools are more likely to read English at or above grade level than English-speaking kids who have been in English-speaking schools all along. What is happened in the Hill Tracts is potentially something for the whole world to watch.Last updated:
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