Bengali is spoken by more than a quarter billion people mainly in Bangladesh and the West Bengal region of India. At The City College of New York, not only is it the fourth most popular native language among students – behind English, Spanish and Chinese – but; undergraduates can now take a year of Bengali to fulfill their language requirement.
“We have a large Bengali-speaking population whose needs were not being met,” said Dr. Carlos Riobó, chair of the City College Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. “Offering courses in Bengali speaks to how City College is responding to the richness of its student population.” The classes have been well received, he added, noting that City College also teaches Hindi and that students from other CUNY institutions can register for the classes with an E-Permit.
Not surprisingly, most students enrolled in the classes are native speakers of Bengali, according to the instructor, adjunct lecturer Md. Abul Kalam Azad, who has taught Bengali in New York City public schools since 1991. “Students want to learn about their culture and language, and research has shown that people who immigrate do better if they know their language and culture and are proud of it.”
In the classroom, he incorporates Bengali literature and culture into a pedagogy designed to emphasize four basic language skills: listening, reading, writing and speaking. For example, the class is reading from the works of Robindranath Tagore, the Bengal writer
who received the 1913 Nobel Prize in Literature.
While most of the students have good listening and speaking skills, many have never read or wrote in Bengali, Professor Azad adds. To help students learn to read and write in Bengali, Professor Azad has adopted a novel approach that incorporates the Oxford Picture Dictionary: students translate the items depicted in the book into Bengali.
The project, which is nearing completion, runs almost 100 pages. While much of it involves items stocked in a typical department store, it also contains items from Bengali culture and society, such as vegetables that are not available in Europe or North America.
Professor Azad said his goal is to help students from immigrant backgrounds “succeed in America.” He adds that he hopes other CUNY colleges will emulate what City College offers for speakers of Bengali. Only one other CUNY institution, LaGuardia Community College, teaches Bengali.
About The City College of New York
Since 1847, The City College of New York has provided low-cost, high-quality education for New Yorkers in a wide variety of disciplines. More than 16,000 students pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in: the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture; the School of Education; the Grove School of Engineering; the Sophie Davis School of Biomedical Education, and the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. U.S. News, Princeton Review and Forbes all rank City College among the best colleges and universities in the United States.