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International Mother Language Day

Today, February 21st, is the worldwide observance of International Mother Language Day.  The observance was established in 1999 by UNESCO and has been celebrated annually since 2000.  Although the name is fairly self-explanatory, International Mother Language Day is more than just a day to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.  The observance of International Mother Language Day has its roots in social justice and tolerance as well as the preservation and protection of languages.

The United Nation’s webpage for International Mother Language Day states that “languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage.  All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve … to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.”  UNESCO chose the date of February 21st as a tribute to this ideal.  It was on February 21, 1952 that students were shot and killed by police for demonstrating in the capital of then East Bengal (now Bangladesh) as part of the Bengali Language Movement.  The Bengali Language Movement advocated for recognition of the language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of the region that was the newly formed (and now defunct) Dominion of Pakistan and was a response to a government resolution that required Urdu to be the sole and exclusive state language.

A similar tragedy occurred on June 16, 1976, when students filled the streets of Soweto, South Africa in protest over a government policy to use only Afrikaans as the medium of instruction in local schools.  Over 23 people died in the mass protests after police opened fire on marching students.

These two example show that languages, especially our mother tongues, are more than just words we use to communicate.  They are links to our heritage.  They form our childhood thoughts and inform our ways of thinking.  They are dynamic expressions of culture, history, community, family and ultimately, I believe they are one of the foundations of our sense of self.  For these reasons, it makes sense to respect languages as unique and valuable and that the protection and preservation of languages is a form of social justice.

Perhaps we can see the importance of language as an instrument of social justice most clearly when we compare it to the devastation caused when language is used as a tool of oppression.

Human history is blotted by the use of language as a form of oppression and demonstrable intolerance.  For example, in the 19th century as part of its drive to force Native American’s to “assimilate” into Euro-American society the United States passed legislation that, among other things, mandated English as the exclusive language of instruction on all reservations.  It was not until 1990, under The Native American Languages Act, that these past policies of eradicating indigenous languages were repudiated and the formal policy of the United States became that Native Americans were entitled to use their own languages.  Yes, you read that correctly, this horror was not formally rectified until 1990, which is utterly shameful.

Similar “assimilation” policies that removed indigenous children from their homes and forced them to live in homes and schools that only taught the language and culture of the dominant society were promulgated in Canada, Australia, Greenland, and New Zealand.  Australia has coined the term “the stolen generations” to refer to those children.   In case you are interested in learning more about this topic, I found a paper called Decolonization and Healing: Indigenous Experiences in the United States, New Zealand, Australia and Greenland prepared for The Aboriginal Healing Foundation by Linda Archibald.  I am still working through the paper, but so far it is an interesting read and conveniently available online.

Language is a powerful cultural identifier and can be used to either promote social justice and tolerance or as a tool of oppression.  I choose to use this International Mother Language Day to advocate for social justice and tolerance.  Let us protect and preserve our languages.  Celebrate your mother language today and pick one other person’s to also celebrate.  How? Learn a new word in your first language; pick a random country and learn more about that country’s indigenous languages; find a cultural group in your area that can teach you about another language and culture; or find a charity that promotes local literacy and education – you can search our WorkerAnts’ global non-profit database here in the Literacy & Learning category or by Education.

Que tengas un buen día!

2 years ago