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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."

 

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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 Fri Apr 24 2015

Chicago Critics Film Festival, The Age of Adaline, Adult Beginners, The Water Diviner, The Wrecking Crew, Welcome to New York & Dior and I

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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Sat Apr 25 2015
You're Being Ridiculous @ Mayne Stage

Sat Apr 25 2015
S+S Project Video & Performance: Currency Exchange

Sat Apr 25 2015
Lager Beer Riot Reenactment @ Benton House

Sat Apr 25 2015
Chicago Improv Festival

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"Diversified" at Under the Gun Theater

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Dance Extravaganza @ Old Town School of Folk Music

Sun Apr 26 2015
Chicago Improv Festival

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Sun Apr 26 2015
C2E2

Mon Apr 27 2015
Version Festival 15

Mon Apr 27 2015
Dinner & a Flick @ New 400 Theater

Tue Apr 28 2015
The Moth StorySLAM @ Martyrs'

Tue Apr 28 2015
Version Festival 15

Wed Apr 29 2015
Version Festival 15

Thu Apr 30 2015
Version Festival 15

Thu Apr 30 2015
Daniel Clowes @ Quimby's

Thu Apr 30 2015
Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists​ Screening & Discussion @ UIC

Fri May 1 2015
Kanikapila @ Old Town School of Folk Music

Fri May 1 2015
Chicago Critics Film Festival

Fri May 1 2015
Luftwerk Refractions Opening Reception @ Silent Funny


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