Tribal children will be taught in their native ethnic languages for one year, then gradually introduced to Bangla, under a new education policy in Bangladesh.
Though he's 25, a trauma endured when he was seven still agonises Ochchho Tonchongya.
"He (teacher) told me 'Darao' (stand up), but I remained seated as I did not understand Bangla. The bullying teacher started caning me repeatedly in front of some 50 of my classmates," Tonchongya told Khabar South Asia, referring to the national language.
Thanks to a recent government decision, the public humiliation Tonchongya endured 18 years ago at Sarwa government primary school in remote Bilaichhari, Rangamati district need never be repeated. From now on, school children will initially be educated in the languages they speak.
Bilaichhari, located in the southeastern Chittagong Hill Tracts Region, is inhabited by the Tanchangya community— one of 29 small ethnic groups constituting about 2% of Bangladesh's 153 million people.
"In line with the (2010) education policy, we have decided to launch pre-primary and primary education in the languages of the ethnic minority communities as a dropout deterrent," said Ministry of Primary and Mass Education Director Shyamol Kanti Ghosh.
In preparation for the January 2014 education season, the national curriculum and textbook board has already started printing books in six languages, Ghosh said—Chakma, Cogborok (Tripura community), Marma, Santal, Sadri (Orao community) and Achik (Mandi community).
"We will gradually introduce similar programmes for all ethnic communities having letters," he said.
The move is seen as an effort to bring the minority communities into the mainstream and could encourage a regional effort in that direction, given the presence of ethnic people in Nepal, India and Burma.
Under the new programme, all five-year-old children will be taught exclusively in their ethnic languages for one year. In the second year, they will additionally learn in Bangla and English. In third and fourth years, ethnic-language study will decrease in order to bridge students to mainstream schooling.
Tribal people and educationists welcomed the government's decision.
"This will certainly make our children school-bound," Sanjib Drong, secretary of the Bangladesh Adivasi (Indigenous) Forum, told Khabar. "It will contribute hugely to mainstreaming of the adivasi children through better education."
At present, he said, primary schoolteachers are Bengali-speakers, who cannot communicate with tribal students.
Dhaka University Linguistics Professor Sikder Monowar Murshed is upbeat about the government decision. He believes the language difference is one reason why tribal children drop out of school at the primary level.
"We have been campaigning for such a programme for years. This will, off course, accelerate national cohesion of the adivasi people," he said.
"The authorities should, at least for now, relax the conditions for the appointment of teachers from the adivasi communities to make the initiative successful."
Rasheda K. Choudhury, a former caretaker government advisor and chief of the non-governmental organisation Campaign for Popular Education, told Khabar the programme would certainly increase enrolment of tribal children – and is appropriate for Bangladesh.
"On February 21st, 1952, Bengalis sacrificed lives for protecting their mother language Bangla from invasion of Pakistanis. The UNESCO has recognised February 21 as the International Mother Language Day," she said.
"So, protecting all languages (in Bangladesh) should be our obligation."