Author: Sarah Jones
International Mother Language Day (IMLD) is a worldwide observance celebrated annually on 21st February. It promotes awareness of cultural and linguistic diversity and international understanding through multilingualism and multiculturalism.
IMLD was an initiative of Bangladesh and the Bengali Language Movement. It was established in 1999 by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The Bengali Language Movement was begun to honour three students from Dhaka University in Bangladesh, who were killed during a demonstration calling for the political recognition of their mother language, Bangla or Bengali, on 21st February 1952.
The passion behind IMLD has encouraged the establishment of many political conferences, which aim to address the needs and overcome the barriers to economic integration of those in diverse geopolitical circumstances around the world.
‘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 not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.’ (Gibson, 2019)
The significance of languages
UNESCO considers mother languages to be an essential part of culture and identity, values and knowledge – to be vital in the preservation and spread of traditions, rituals and forms of expression that make all our lives richer.
IMLD promotes the preservation and protection of all languages.
‘When a language is lost, it is not only the words and their meaning that disappear. It also involves a loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in the language for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge.’ (Unesco.org, 2019)
Why do languages disappear?
Languages disappear when their speakers do! This can happen due to internal factors, such as when a community has a negative attitude towards its own language and does not maintain or protect it from extinction, or due to external factors, such as when a government pursues a policy for a ‘lingua franca’.
Many other factors, such as migration, urbanisation, globalisation and the increasing worldwide spread of new technology, can have an adverse effect on language diversity, especially when traditional ways of life are threatened. At the same time, they can also help to protect, spread and preserve languages.
‘Researchers at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in India have made extensive recordings of Boa Sr., the last surviving speaker of the Bo language of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. Although she died in 2005, there is now a rich digital archive of materials, making the language and the cultural, historical and ecological knowledge that it relayed available to future generations that otherwise would have been lost to obscurity.‘ (Araujo, 2019)
Further research indicates the value of preserving languages.
’In some countries, a particular language might be preferred for political or cultural reasons. This can result in the domination of one language in education and other public services. People that don’t speak the dominant language or speak it poorly can thus be disadvantaged and in the worst cases, it can lead to discrimination in daily life, exclusion from jobs or services and even oppression. It can also result in other languages becoming endangered and ultimately extinct, but in countries that preserve the mother tongue and encourage the use of a child’s mother tongue helps to create a strong foundation for learning and gives them the building blocks they need.’ (Karin & Islam, 2015)
Protecting endangered languages
Languages are disappearing: a worldwide shared interest and commitment is needed to help them survive. As part of UNESCO’s work to promote mother languages and protect linguistic and cultural diversity, the organisation has created an online ‘Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger’ (Unesco.org, 2019), to track and raise awareness of endangered languages and to safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity among governments, community representatives and the general public.
What can we do?
Languages are dying. It’s our duty to protect our heritage and that of others – let’s embrace and celebrate languages to keep them alive!
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Araujo, M. (2019). Mother language day – factsheet [online], United Nations Association. Available here.
Gibson, M. (2019). Widespread celebration of International Mother Language Day [online], SIL International. Available here.
Karin, R. & Islam, S. “Journey to Inclusion in & through Education: Language Counts”. Archived 2015-04-02 at the Wayback Machine, Bangladesh PressClub Centre of Alberta (BPCA). Published 20th February 2015 in the International Mother Language Day Magazine 2015, (page 31).
Unesco.org (2019). UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in danger [online]. Available here.