Her first book, Essential Everyday Bengali, focused on the colloquial, everyday form of the language. This year a further three books are due out, including Bengali: A Comprehensive Grammar.
Here she explains how she came to take up Bengali, why traditional interpretations of its grammar have “fossilised” and why there are no insurmountable problems for students wanting to learn the language.
How did you come to learn Bengali?
We lived in Bangladesh for almost four years in the early nineties and, well, the truth is, I fell completely in love with Bangla, learnt as much as I could as quickly as I could and couldn’t get enough of it.
My first book, Essential Everyday Bengali, came directly out of my own learning experience and was an instant success due to the fact that it focused on the colloquial, everyday language and was very easy to use. It filled a gap in the market.
Having mastered the language, what was your path into teaching Bengali?
After the book was out and I was back in the UK, I wanted to find out more about Bangla grammar, so I did a PhD at SOAS (1999 – 2004) and the teaching was a natural side-product of that. I have also done teacher training for Bengali teachers teaching foreigners (mainly in Bangladesh) and find that developing teaching materials and making the language accessible to learners comes very naturally to me.
Bengali: A Comprehensive Grammar is due to be published shortly – what was your aim with that book?
My PhD was already a preparation for this book and the need for a new (and different) grammar of Bangla has been staring us in the face for a long time.
Traditional Bengali grammar books are based on the historical development of the language from Sanskrit and are of very limited use to the foreign learner. My approach is entirely different in that I am looking at the structures of contemporary Bangla without a historical perspective and simply describing them. This encompasses sounds, morphological features, word classes, functions, sentence structures, semantic and stylistic elements as they exist today.
The actual writing of the book took about two years, but I spent years before that collecting examples both from spoken and written language.
Will the Grammar focus on the literary form of the language (sadhu bhasha) or does it look more at today’s Bengali?
There is no sadhu bhasha in this book. No disrespect to people who want to learn the language for historical research but my concern is with the modern language and with its structures.
Traditional Bengali grammar interpretation has become fossilised and stale with the same old example sentences being used over and over. I have moved right away from that and in the course of this work have made a lot of discoveries about the language which surprise even Bengali linguistic experts.
The importance of non-finite verb forms in the way Bangla structures its sentences, is just one example – use of ta etc another. Two of the main features of this book are its relatively simple explanations and abundance of examples.
The conference was quite simply wonderful. I was a bit worried that Bengali linguists might be skeptical about my approach (moving away from Sanskrit) but the response and enthusiasm was overwhelming.
Someone immediately suggested a Bangla translation of the book and I think this is a real possibility, through a shortened, team-produced modern approach to language structures in Bangla. Many Bengalis express a great love for their language and yet they don’t know all that much about it.
In your experience which points of Bengali grammar do students tend to struggle with?
Bangla grammar is, in truth, not really all that difficult. But the way sentences are organised is very different to English: ‘I have no money’ – amar taka nei, ‘I feel hungry’ – amar khida legeche [amar khide legeche in West Bengal].
Other areas students can find quite daunting are its impersonal structures, the uses of ach- and howa, pronouns and verb endings, the different script, the way sentences are constructed and Bangla’s huge vocabulary.
However, all of this is really quite logical and if the learning is organised well and divided into manageable chunks, there are no insuperable problems. Part of the difficulty is the expectation of it being difficult and I am working on making the structures more transparent and the learning more enjoyable.
As you have pointed out yourself, there are now so many resources available for practice that no-one should feel they can’t manage. My advantage is that as I was (am!) a learner myself, so I know where students are coming from.
Beyond the Grammar you have a number of other books coming out this year
The three books I have just finished are the two American dictionaries (Dictionary and Phrasebook, and Practical Bengali Dictionary) and the German translation of Buddhadeva Bose’s novel Moner moto meye (My kind of girl), which will be published in October/November.
The next book is an academic grammar, i.e. an outline written for linguists who are interested in the structures of languages. The publisher is John Benjamin and the series is called London Oriental and African Language Library. Very prestigious and academically stringent (a great honour to be asked!), small editions, extremely expensive and I have to give all the Bangla examples in transcript!
It won’t be anything like as detailed as the Routledge grammar but will be a chance to come up with a linguistic classification of Bangla in comparison to other languages. The questions I still have myself about particular structures should become a bit clearer in this process.
Finally then, what is your favourite Bengali author, book, poem, film and dish?
My favourite author at the moment is Buddhadeva Bose (1908 – 1974) as I have just done a translation of one of his novels into German. I am reading his novel Tithidore at the moment and really enjoying it. I also love Tagore’s Gora for its complexity and beautiful language.
I love Satyajit Ray films and also enjoy many Bangladeshi films (Durotto by Emdadul Haq is one). Again these preferences come and go.
My favorite dish is alu porda. I’m not even quite sure of the spelling. It’s a dish of mashed potato mixed with chili and shorisha tel (mustard oil). I also love all kinds of dal, acar (chutney) and Bangladeshi mangoes.
My thanks to Dr Thompson for taking part in this Q&A .
If you would like to be considered for a future Q&A please get in touch.