Ad: [ ? ]

Saturday, July 4

Gapers Block

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr

« A Master Builder : A Claustrophobic Stew of Lust, Ambition, Ego and Envy See the Many 'Hats' of Dr. Seuss This Fall »

Chicago Speaks Tue Aug 12 2014

Chicago Speaks: Bengali, as Spoken by Feryall Rahman

Chicago SpeaksAs a global city, Chicago is home to many languages besides English. Chicago Speaks profiles speakers of these languages, and shares some of their personal stories along the way.

The structural engineer Fazlur Khan is known for his work on the John Hancock Center and the Willis Tower, where a sculpture depicting his face greets visitors to the Skydeck. But Khan, perhaps the best known Bangladeshi Chicagoan, bequeathed more than buildings to his adopted city.

In 1980, shortly before his death, he founded a community organization called the Bangladesh Association of Chicagoland. In 2012, Feryall Rahman decided to join it. "I was like, 'Oh, if Fazlur Rahman Khan started this, I'm going to go see what this is about,'" she says.

She's now the executive secretary of the group, which has become her main local outlet for speaking her mother language, known as both Bangla and Bengali. Though more than 200 million people speak Bengali, most of them in Bangladesh and India, only a few thousand Illinois residents use it at home. Rahman, who lives in northwest suburban Cary, isn't usually one of them.

A Brain on Three Languages

feryall rahman
Feryall Rahman. Photo by Maureen Smithe Brusznicki
She grew up in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, with Bengali-speaking parents. Her schooling, though, was in English. And her family lived for seven years amidst an Urdu-speaking community in Pakistan. Today, when she talks on the phone with her sisters, they switch freely between the three languages.

"We are habituated to speaking in such a manner that we'll start a sentence in one language, do the middle of it in another and finish it in a third," Rahman explains. "Whatever our brain grasps the fastest as being able to express what we're trying to express at that moment."

Her brain has preferences. "You can always tell which language is predominant if you're hurt," she says. "[It's] the first language that comes out of your mouth or into your mind." For her, it's English. "English is what I dream in, what I think in, what I write in," she says.

The Mother of Mother Language Day

Still, she considers Bengali her mother language — a concept that has particular resonance for Bangladeshis.

What is now Bangladesh used to be part of Pakistan, which itself used to be part of British India. After the British colonizers left in 1947, Pakistani officials wanted to make Urdu the national language. But Bengali speakers in Bangladesh — then East Pakistan — opposed that idea. It contributed to their larger sense that the government in West Pakistan was treating them unfairly.

Students and other protesters demonstrated to demand official recognition of Bengali. In an incident that Rahman compares to the 1970 shootings at Kent State University, a group of them were shot and killed on Feb. 21, 1952.

"The language movement," writes the scholar David Lewis, was in those years "the dominant cultural expression of the struggle for Bangladesh." The new country eventually seceded from Pakistan in 1971. In 1999, UNESCO declared Feb. 21 International Mother Language Day.

Speech 101

Of course, if your mother language isn't the one you know best, things can get complicated. In 1984, when Rahman arrived in New York to attend Pace University, she had to take a speech class for nonnative speakers.

In British-inflected English, she protested the requirement to a university counselor. "I said, 'Why on earth would I be taking speech 101? So I can say bath instead of bahth and vayze instead of vahze?' And he said 'Well, it's our policy.'"

At Pace, Rahman ended up taking multiple speech classes and even joined the debate team. She also met the Arlington Heights native who became her first husband. Over the years, her accent has shifted. "When I'm more relaxed, I sound more American," she says. "When I'm being polite or I've just met somebody ...I sound terribly British."


Add a Comment

Please enter the letter b in the field below:

Live Comment Preview

Notes & Tags

Items marked with a * are required fields. Please respect each other. We reserve the right to delete any comments borne out of douchebaggery or that deal in asshattery.

Permitted tags and how to use them:

To link: <a href="">Link text</a>
To italicize: <em>Your text</em>
To bold: <strong>Your text</strong>

Feature Thu Apr 16 2015

From Chicago to Senegal by Way of the Drum: Interview with Local Filmmaker Mallory Sohmer

By Ana Sekler

Mallory Sohmer is a freelance documentary filmmaker from Chicago and a Columbia College alumna. She co-directed the new film, Drum Beat Journey, the story of four inner-city youth who travel to Petit Mbao, Senegal, to participate in a drumming workshop. The program used music as a vehicle to capture and connect with the young men in an engaging and original way. But this is not just a film about drumming; it's about stepping into another culture to learn about oneself.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Wed Jul 01 2015

Terminator Genisys, Magic Mike XXL, The Little Death & Closer to God

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »


An Angry White Guy
AREA Chicago
ArchitectureChicago Plus
Arts Engagement Exchange
The Art Letter
Art or Idiocy?
Art Slant Chicago
Art Talk Chicago
Bad at Sports
Bite and Smile
Brian Dickie of COT
Bridgeport International
Carrie Secrist Gallery
Chainsaw Calligraphy
Chicago Art Blog
Chicago Art Department
Chicago Art Examiner
Chicago Art Journal
Chicago Artists Resource
Chicago Art Map
Chicago Art Review
Chicago Classical Music
Chicago Comedy Examiner
Chicago Cultural Center
Chicago Daily Views
Chicago Film Examiner
Chicago Film Archives
Chicago Gallery News
Chicago Uncommon
Contemporary Art Space
Co-op Image Group
Co-Prosperity Sphere
Chicago Urban Art Society
Creative Control
Devening Projects
DIY Film
The Exhibition Agency
The Flatiron Project
F newsmagazine
The Gallery Crawl...
Galerie F
The Gaudy God
Happy Dog Gallery
Homeroom Chicago
I, Homunculus
Hyde Park Artcenter Blog
Joyce Owens: Artist on Art
Julius Caesar
Kasia Kay Gallery
Kavi Gupta Gallery
Rob Kozlowski
Lookingglass Theatre Blog
Lumpen Blog
Mess Hall
Neoteric Art
Not If But When
Noun and Verb
On Film
On the Make
Peanut Gallery
Peregrine Program
The Poor Choices Show
Pop Up Art Loop
The Post Family
The Recycled Film
Reversible Eye
Rhona Hoffman Gallery
Roots & Culture Gallery
The Seen
Sisterman Vintage
Site of Big Shoulders
Sixty Inches From Center
Soleil's To-Do's
Sometimes Store
Stop Go Stop
Storefront Rebellion
TOC Blog
Theater for the Future
Theatre in Chicago
The Franklin
The Mission
The Theater Loop
Thomas Robertello Gallery
Time Tells Tony Wight Gallery
Uncommon Photographers
The Unscene Chicago
The Visualist
Western Exhibitions
What's Going On?
What to Wear During an Orange Alert?
You, Me, Them, Everybody
Zg Gallery



Sat Jul 4 2015
Invasion USA @ Music Box

Sat Jul 4 2015
Yankee Doodle Dandy @ Music Box

Sat Jul 4 2015
Independence Day & The Burbs @ Empty Bottle

Sat Jul 4 2015
Chosen Few Picnic

Tue Jul 7 2015
Tell it to the Birds @ Millennium Park

Thu Jul 9 2015
Heather McAdams @ Sulzer Regional Library

Fri Jul 10 2015
Vaudeo Motion II @ High Concept Labs

Fri Jul 10 2015
A Murder in the Park @ Film Center

Fri Jul 10 2015
Square Roots Festival

A/C on Flickr

Join the A/C Flickr Pool.

About A/C

A/C is the arts and culture section of Gapers Block, covering the many forms of expression on display in Chicago. More...
Please see our submission guidelines.

Editor: LaShawn Williams,
A/C staff inbox:



A/C Flickr Pool
 Subscribe in a reader.

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15


Sign up for our free email newsletter I Star Chi and get a weekly round-up of the best of Gapers Block, plus our picks for must-do events each weekend!


Preferred format    Preferred format