Celebrating Language Diversity and Linguistic Rights
Origins of International Mother Language Day
Did you know that today is International Mother Language Day? In 1999, UNESCO declared that the day would be celebrated annually on February 21st in order to commemorate a 1952 student demonstration in Bangladesh calling for the equal status of the local language, Bengali, with the Pakistani language, Urdu. At the time, Bangladesh was part of Pakistan and the Pakistani police force opened fire on the protestors, killing dozens. This sparked wide civil unrest and after many years of conflict, the government finally granted Bengali official status in 1956 (Bangladesh gained independence from Pakistan in 1971). February 21 is a national holiday in Bangladesh (Language Movement Day), in addition to its status as International Mother Language Day.
Why is it Important?
According to Ethnologue, there are 7105 living language in the world! There are over 400 languages spoken in India and over 800 in Papua New Guinea! However, 90% of the world’s languages are spoken by less than 100,000 people, and many are in danger of becoming extinct. Because language is so strongly linked to culture, we are at risk of losing important cultural and historical knowledge if these languages are lost.
It is also a human right to be able to speak, have access to legal processes, and be educated in one’s own language. The U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples specifically highlights the rights of indigenous groups to maintain their languages, both as a way to preserve their cultures and to ensure the development of their communities; education in one’s mother tongue has been proven to improve long-term education outcomes (see my post on Intercultural Bilingual Education in Latin America). Here’s a video by UNESCO on the importance of preserving languages:
How to Celebrate
UNESCO and other cultural organizations host events around the world for International Mother Language Day. As far as I can tell, the most central spot to find information is the International Mother Language Day Facebook page. In Bangladesh, the day is a national holiday where people lay flowers at the Shaheed Minar (Martyr’s Monument), organize parties, and host literary competitions to celebrate their language. In Peru, the Ministry of Culture is hosting a concert with artists who will sing in several of Peru’s 47 indigenous languages. If you can’t find an event near you, or you already have other plans, consider participating in Global Voices’ call to Tweet Your Mother Language and help spread the word about the beauty and importance of first languages and multilingualism.
Información en español sobre el Día Internacional de la Lengua Materna aquí.