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International Mother Language Day

Thursday, February 21, 2019 4:54 PM | Jennifer Wisniewski (Administrator)

শুভ আন্তর্জাতিক মাতৃভাষা দিবস   For those of you who don’t speak Bangla, I am wishing you a Happy International Mother Language Day!

It is with the Bangla language in what is now Bangladesh that the celebration of this international holiday began.  More on that later.

First, some perspective. More than 7,000 (Yes, that’s three zeros!) exist in the world today. In Tanzania alone, 127 languages are spoken.  Nigeria holds the record for being the most linguistically diverse on the continent of Africa with 527 languages spoken. One might guess that the most linguistically diverse globally might also be one of the largest countries geographically or by population - for example, China or India.  Actually, the world’s most linguistically diverse is Papua New Guinea with 851 languages. (4)

Photo Credit:  Soner Eker/Unsplash

Still, many are concerned with the quick rate that indigenous languages are fading and dying.  

While the number of global languages might seem staggering, the United Nations predicts that every two weeks a language disappears.  One estimate holds that 43% are endangered. (5)

With the loss of language comes a loss of culture. Venkaiah Naidu, vice president of India, articulates the issue eloquently:  “Language is the soul of a society, the binding thread of human existence.” (1)

Perhaps it was this existential threat that led Bengalis in East Pakistan to unite in protest.  In 1948, following the partition of India and Bengal, the area that is now Bangladesh became East Pakistan. The government recognized Urdu as the official language. When protests began, with ethnic Bengalis calling for the addition of Bangla as an official language, the government responded by banning public gatherings. The protesters did not give up.  In 1952, four student protesters were killed when police opened fire at a rally. By 1956 the government had granted official status to Bangla. (1)

More than 40 years later, UNESCO initiated International Day of Mother Languages.  The day is celebrated on February 21, the day the student protesters were killed while defending their language, and indirectly their culture and identity. The holiday has been officially observed since 2000.

Naidu has been a vocal proponent for the preservation of indigenous languages. In his native India, 750 languages are spoken, 22 of which are official languages.  Naidu points out that the first language every infant (or fetus) hears is that of his or her mother. Maintaining this first language keeps one connected to a person’s mother and motherland, he says.  One way to maintain the mother tongue is through incorporating indigenous languages within school systems. Naidu advocates mandating this incorporation in India’s schools. (1)

Photo Credit:  Aaron Burden/Unsplash

Globally, 40% of the population lacks access to education in the language they speak or understand. (5)

Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, shares Naidu’s vision.  “A mother tongue is vital to literacy because it facilitates the acquisition of basic reading and writing skills, as well as basic numeracy, during the first years of schooling,” she said. (5)

A number of factors have led to the disappearance of mother tongues around the world - including urbanization and globalization.(3)  As our world changes, many strive to preserve not only language but culture, history and memory. As awareness of endangered languages grows, the United Nations takes the advocacy a step farther, proclaiming 2019 the Year of Indigenous Languages.

In closing, we send well wishes for International Day of Mother Languages in Swahili:  Furaha ya Kimataifa ya Siku ya Mama ya Mama!


1.In Depth - International Mother Language Day / Rajya Sabha TV





Brighter Tanzania Foundation is a registered 501c3 nonprofit organization. Donations may be tax-deductible.

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Middleton, WI 53562

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