University Debuts Rarely Taught Bengali Language Courses

September 28, 2009
September 28, 2009 – For the first time at the University of Virginia, the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures is offering courses in Bengali, the national language of Bangladesh.

The courses offered this fall include elementary Bengali, readings in Bengali, and modern Bengali literature in translation. The elementary courses will fulfill the language requirement for students enrolled in the College of Arts & Sciences; by next year, the normal four-course sequence for Bengali will be installed.

Aminur Rahman, a University lecturer and collegiate educator for more than 15 years, teaches all of the courses offered this semester. A native of Bangladesh, he received his undergraduate and graduate degrees in Bengali from the University of Dhaka.

Bengali, or Bangla, is an eastern Indo-Aryan language spoken by approximately 230 million people worldwide and is the second-most-widely spoken language in India, following Hindi. It is the most common language spoken in Calcutta, a major cultural center located on the eastern border of India near Bangladesh.

"The College has been eager to strengthen international and regional studies … and South Asian studies in particular," said Daniel Lefkowitz, chairman of the Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures. He added that a recent increase in the number of University students with Bengali heritage further supported the idea of developing the language classes.

The program is beginning on a promising note. The small and intimate elementary Bengali class boasts about 10 students – a large number, considering a 2006 report from the Modern Language Association found only 94 students enrolled in Bengali-language courses at 12 institutions throughout the United States.

U.Va.'s Bengali students – a mix of 10 undergraduate and graduate students and one faculty assistant – have very different reasons for enrolling in the rarely offered course.

"All my relatives, including my parents, speak Bengali, and it's nice not to have a language barrier," said Paula Majumdar, a second-year foreign affairs major in the College.

Ann Marshall Thomas, a third-year political and social thought major in the College, spent two months in Bangladesh doing research with a Harrison Undergraduate Research Award, and is currently taking Bengali classes in hopes of returning to the area, she said.

In one recent class, the students were actively engaged with Rahman as he individually conversed with them and oversaw their script-writing. The students worked together to solve problems and encouraged each other to participate. When a correct response was give to a question asked in Bengali, Rahman punctuated the answer with an English reply, such as "That's beautiful!" or "Brilliant!"

The elementary Bengali courses are open to any University student, although the Readings in Bengali I course requires basic knowledge of the language. The Modern Bengali Literature in Translation course is taught in English, however, and requires no previous experience with the language.

— by Ashley Mathieu