In Bangladesh, a new writing system paves the way for learning

Two of the teachers brought their children to the workshop. At break time, one of the teachers showed her child pictures from the resources and asked her questions about them. The teacher smiled at me and told me her daughter was answering the questions. It was a learning experience for me too.

- Sangita Florence of SIL Bangladesh

(May 2014) Equipped with a newly-designed writing system and well-prepared teachers, the Koch community of Bangladesh launched its first mother-tongue preschool program earlier this year.

Koch teachers from villages in the Sherpur District came to the capital, Dhaka, for a special training time that introduced effective methods of multilingual education (MLE). Until now, a Koch child’s first experience in the school environment was also his or her first experience of being totally immersed in the national language, Bangla. For many children around the world, navigating the school experience in a foreign language is an insurmountable obstacle, leading to low achievement scores and high dropout rates for students from ethnolinguistic minority communities. How can bright and highly motivated students succeed when the teachers and textbooks speak a language they don’t understand?

In conversations with the SIL Bangladesh staff, some Koch young people described the challenges they faced when they started primary school: at the beginning they struggled to understand lessons in Bangla, but now they find they are losing their fluency in Koch. The aim of the new schools is to give Koch children a confident head start in their mother tongue and provide a firm foundation for learning other languages. It is hoped that this first, positive experience of school will help to reduce the dropout rate later. Children do not need to choose between their mother tongue and the national language but can learn successfully through both.

One key element of offering schooling in the Koch language was the matter of a writing system: for students to learn to read and write, the community had to agree on a system for writing the language. Over the last two years, the Koch language committee has worked on an alphabet and spelling rules for their language. Some of the teachers who attended the workshop were part of the team that developed the freshly-printed collection of new books and materials that use the new writing system. The workshop provided an opportunity for all of the teachers to become comfortable with teaching the Koch alphabet.

During the training workshop, facilitators from SIL Bangladesh modeled best practice MLE methods and the teachers took turns applying the new skills. Although the workshop was packed with activities, the teachers never lagged in their enthusiasm, encouraged by the prospect of providing lessons that will capture the hearts and minds of their young students, setting them on a path to success in both school and life.

Koch preschool launch celebrationIn February a community-wide celebration marked the official opening of the Koch multilingual pre-schools and the beginning of a new phase in the community’s language development efforts. The students who would soon be attending the two preschools in different villages came to the event with their mothers. Young girls performed Koch dances and songs. Sangita Florence of SIL Bangladesh observed, “As I saw people talking and laughing together I realized how important this opening celebration was to the community. I felt really excited when we handed over the school materials to the teachers in the presence of the community and committee members. I believe the materials are a key to unlock learning.”

The many languages and cultures of Bangladesh add to the country’s unique beauty. Small initiatives by communities that are concerned about their languages can bring about bigger changes. The opening of the preschools is an important step towards the Koch community meeting its goals.

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