Back in 1999, UNESCO declared 21 February to be International Mother Language Day. The date was chosen to commemorate the same day in 1952 when students from Dhaka University were killed whilst taking part in a demonstration calling for recognition of their language Bangla (also known as Bengali).
After gaining independence in 1947, the area then known as Bengal was divided in the Partition of India. Part of this territory, where Bangla was predominantly spoken, was then governed by Pakistan. In a continual discussion and dispute over the official language to be used, it was finally confirmed that the sole state language of the territory, known as East Pakistan, would be Urdu – as it was in West Pakistan. A few weeks later, thousands of Bangla-speaking students gathered at Dhaka University to protest against the motion, where many were injured and arrested, and several killed. Years of conflict continued until 1956, when official status was granted to the Bengali language – something the Bengali language movement had worked hard to achieve. In tribute to the movement and the ethno-linguistic rights of people around the globe, UNESCO created International Mother Language Day.
Your ‘mother tongue’ is defined as the first language that you learn as a baby and in early childhood. For most people this is usually just one language; children in multilingual families may learn two or more languages simultaneously.
UNESCO believes that mother languages are integral to culture and identity, for it is often language that carries values and knowledge down through generations. And this knowledge transfer is under threat!
In the past, there were somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 distinct languages across the globe. Unfortunately, many of these languages have disappeared and are no longer in use. It is now estimated that there are around 6,000 languages remaining, but they are dying out at an alarming rate. UNESCO reckons that one language disappears every two weeks, its cultural and intellectual heritage taken along with it.
It is thought that 40 percent of people worldwide cannot access an education in a language they speak or understand. This means that some minority-language speakers are forced to use another, often an official language of the country (as was the case for the Dhaka students). This results in the mother-tongue language being used less and less in daily life. Reduced contact with and immersion in a language could have the unfortunate consequence that a mother-tongue language can almost disappear within one generation.
Nevertheless, progress is being made in mother-tongue-based multilingual education with growing understanding of its importance, particularly in early schooling, and more commitment to its development in public life. And there are some regions that have recognised the importance of these mother-tongue languages and have acted early to maintain interest in what is seen as a vital part of ancestry and heritage.
International Mother Language Day therefore aims to gain awareness of disappearing languages and to raise interest and commitment in keeping these endangered mother tongues alive. It is also hoped that by celebrating these languages and through promoting multilingualism and multiculturalism we can achieve better international understanding.
The theme for 2019’s International Mother Language Day is ‘Indigenous languages matter for development, peace building and reconciliation’ – which links with UNESCO’s International Year of Indigenous Languages.
As part of the celebrations, the Office of the United Nations Ombudsman and Mediation services is encouraging everyone to get involved. They are asking for people to send in proverbs in their mother tongue which relate to or have meanings of: peace, harmony, conflict resolution/competence to deal with conflict, mindfulness, resilience and well-being.