Many people take their language skills for granted (even if it is just one). Mother tongue is the language or dialect a person is first exposed to and may also be considered the language or dialect of a person’s ethnic group. Language allows us human beings to express our thoughts, ideas, and feelings to one another. This allows us to understand each other, empathize and ultimately feel connected.
Even two people speaking different languages can find amazing rewards when they take on trying to communicate. Exchanging new words and discovering shared understanding beyond a barrier can inspire our better selves to emerge. Learning a new language isn’t just an added job skill. It opens our minds to new ways of thinking. Learning about a different language gives us access to collective knowledge, stories, and history gathered over countless generations.
Commemorative dates such as this give us an opportunity to reflect. On February 21, 1952, the people of what is now Bangladesh marched in protest when the then West Pakistani government declared Urdu to be the sole national language, negatively impacting a large Bengali-speaking population living in then East Pakistan. Violence erupted when the police opened fire on protesters. On November 17, 1999, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) unanimously resolved that “21st February be proclaimed International Mother Language Day throughout the world to commemorate the martyrs who sacrificed their lives on this very day in 1952.”
I find it important during these moments of reflection to acknowledge the existing forces that threaten language diversity. Many estimate that over half of the world’s languages will be extinct by the end of this century. This is a direct result of colonialism and the continued practices of assimilation, dispossession of lands, and discriminatory laws and actions. When a language disappears, we lose an entire cultural and intellectual heritage.
Preserving Mother Languages
One of the main areas communities are working to help preserve endangered languages is in primary school education. In New Zealand, teacher education and full programs offering children learning opportunities in both English and their native language are notable efforts on this front. Part of their response to cultural and language diversity states, “To better serve an increasingly diverse population, leaders and teachers need to have general sociocultural knowledge, know about second-language acquisition, and the ways in which socioeconomic issues shape educational achievement, as well as specific knowledge about the languages, cultures, and circumstances of particular learners.”
I believe this statement sets a good example of how each of us can better ourselves, expand our horizons, and contribute to preserving language diversity.
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Updated 17 February 2023