Reconnecting to roots with Assamese as a medium
Eleven-year-old Anubhuti loves to learn new languages. But growing up in Whitby, a town located 50 km east of Toronto in Canada, she had little knowledge of Assamese, her mother tongue. It prevented her from interacting confidently with her cousins and family members back in Assam.
But that changed in July last year, when her mother Kuntala Bhattacharya enrolled Anubhuti for online lessons on how to understand, read, write and speak the language. The course conducted over several weeks during the peak of Covid-19 pandemic helped Anubhuti learn Assamese and reconnect with Assam.
“Anubhuti loves to learn new languages. We have a huge extended family in Assam. So I told her that she will be able to interact with her family and cousins in Assam confidently if she knows Assamese. Anubhuti agreed and her journey of learning Assamese began in July 2020,” said Bhattacharya.
“I am glad that she is now more inquisitive to know about the history and the different places in Assam. Anubhuti can read and write confidently but still she hesitates to speak. At home, we speak Assamese and even if she speaks in English, we respond in Assamese, which aids her learning,” she added.
Anubhuti is not alone. A growing number of Assamese people based outside the state in different parts of the country and abroad are taking help of online classes to educate their children about their mother tongue and using it to reconnect to their roots and families back home.
“Teaching Assamese to children had been on my mind for some years now. The desire became intense during my visit to Assam in 2018 when I noticed that many children didn’t know Assamese numbers well or added a lot of English or Hindi words while talking in Assamese,” said Geetasree Gogoi Apte, a resident of Tennessee in USA, who hails from Jorhat in Assam.
“The problem was more severe among Assamese families or families with one Assamese parent staying outside India. Many children of such families have very little or no knowledge of their mother tongue, which in turn was affecting their communication with relatives back home and also in knowing more about Assamese culture,” she added.
Her desire took shape during the Covid-19 lockdown last year when she, while based at Calgary in Canada then, started the Padmehwar Gogoi International School (PGIS), a virtual learning platform in the name of her father in March, 2020 to teach students how to read, write, understand and speak Assamese better.
“There were nearly 30 Assamese families in Calgary at that time and only 3-4 people among them could read Assamese. So I started teaching children of those families. The initial days were tough as there was not much study material to proceed with and most students had little knowledge of Assamese language or culture,” said Apte.
Till date, PGIS has taught 75 students in the age group of 5 to 55 years from US, UK, Canada, New Zealand, Netherlands, Poland and India. Many of these students who have completed the nine-month course can now read, write, speak in Assamese and also sing songs, recite poems and more. Apte has now been joined by Dil Deka, a resident of Texas, USA, who helps in spreading the mission to teach Assamese to more students.
A similar venture was started in Mumbai during the lockdown by Ruma Hazarika using the platform of Asom Sahitya Sabha, Assam’s premier literary organisation, to teach Assamese to children who had connections with Assam but couldn’t speak, read, write or understand the language as their parents were based outside the state and Assamese wasn’t taught in their schools.
Using online tools and the free time which children had during the lockdown, Hazarika taught 40 students from Mumbai and from across India preliminary lessons on Assamese. They were also educated about Assam’s history, culture, prominent personalities and more.
“We felt if the new generation doesn’t know Assamese, our literature would remain only in libraries after some years. The initiative by Mumbai chapter of Asom Sahitya Sabha was closed last month and I started Amar Porhasali Global, an online school to learn Assamese, this month. We’ve got 26 students at present—6 of them are from European nations,” said Hazarika, who hails from Sivasagar in Assam and has been residing in Mumbai since 1994.
“Ours is a small effort to propagate the language among the new generation and helps them connect with Assam. Besides children, it’s heartening to see young parents as well trying to learn the language so that they can pass it on to their kids,” she added.
The efforts of Apte and Hazarika to spread Assamese are being supported by Asom Sahitya Sabha, which is giving the students certificates on completion of their online classes.
“Such initiatives are praiseworthy. It is scientifically proven that learning one’s mother tongue improves cognitive faculties among children. Learning the mother tongue also helps in learning other languages,” said Asom Sahitya Sabha president Kuladhar Saikia. A retired IPS officer and Sahitya Academy Award winner, Saikia also believes spreading Assamese beyond Assam’s boundaries would help prevent the language from dying.
“Since I assumed the charge of Asom Sahitya Sabha, our efforts have been to ensure that people take pride in Assamese language and efforts are undertaken to propagate it. I’ve talked to several students and parents who’ve taken part in these online classes. They are very enthusiastic at how learning the language is strengthening connections with their roots,” he added.