WHEN: Wednesday, June 25, 2014, 6:00pm – 8:000pm
WHERE: Burlington City Arts, Second Floor, 135 Church St, Burlington [map]
COST: AIGA Members: FREE, Non-Members: $5
Preserving endangered languages and traditional culture through children’s literature.
An unusual and fascinating type-and-design challenge has arisen because of events taking place halfway around the world—in Bangladesh.
Located in southeastern Bangladesh, the Chittagong Hill Tracts is a steep and forested area that is home to 13 indigenous peoples, each with their own distinct cultural identity, history, and traditions. Many have their own languages, but those languages, and the culture they are a part of, are in grave and immediate danger.
Virtually all schools in the Chittagong Hill Tracts teach classes in the imposed language of Bangla, the country’s official national language. However Bangla is not a language spoken in the Hill Tracts, and as a result the children’s education is difficult, confusing, frustrating, and often futile. The dropout rate is more than 90%. Not only is an entire generation growing up without an education, but in being denied the opportunity to learn in their own languages, like many Native Americans and Aboriginal Australians, they lose a sense of their own cultural history and identity.
Tim Brookes, founder of the Endangered Alphabets Project, has formed a coalition with Our Golden Hour, a nonprofit organization that is expanding educational opportunities for children in the Chittagong Hill Tracts by building schools in the region in which children can learn in their own native tongues. In collaboration with the Champlain College Publishing Initiative, their goal is to publish children’s books in the alphabets of Mro, Marma, Chakma, and others in an effort to promote learning and to preserve the cultural identity of the Chittagong Hill Tracts. At the moment, there are virtually no educational materials of any kind in the Mro, Marma and Chakma languages and scripts.
As part of this project the students in the Chittagong Hill Tracts have been tasked with collecting oral histories from tribal elders and community leaders. A group of authors and illustrators then compile the stories into children’s books that are translated into the indigenous languages of the Hill Tracts as well as English and Bangla. As Maung Nyeu, the founder of Our Golden Hour, states, “This will not only only save our alphabets, but will also preserve the knowledge and wisdom passed down through generations. For us, language is not only a tool for communication, it is a voice through which our ancestors speak with us.”
This project, though, presents numerous design and typography challenges. Each of the books needs illustrations in an idiom that is familiar to its young readers. Although there are Unicode fonts for Marma and Chakma, there is as yet no working computerized font for Mro. And it would be a major advantage to have child-friendly versions of all three fonts.
This enterprise receives no support from the Bangladeshi government, which maintains a single-language policy and denies full citizenship to indigenous peoples. It has also closed the entire Chittagong Hill Tracts region to foreigners and placed it under military rule.
About Tim Brookes
Tim Brookes, born in England and educated at Oxford, is the author of 14 books, most recently Endangered Alphabets. He lives in Burlington.