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Chicago Speaks Tue Aug 12 2014
As 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. Photo by Maureen Smithe BrusznickiShe 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.
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."