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International Mother Language Day

The term “mother language” or “mother tongue” refers to a person’s native language, which is the language a person has been exposed to from birth.

Grayscale photo of man and woman holding hands

There are roughly 6,500 languages spoken in the world today. Over 40% of them are at risk of fading away completely. For centuries, people have been pressured to stop using their native tongues. For example, in the 19th and 20th century, Native Americans were forced to attend boarding schools where students could only speak English. Shockingly, until only around 50 years ago, some of these schools still operated in this way. Nowadays, certain employers demand that only English is spoken in the workplace. Some go so far as to ban employees from speaking other languages, such as Spanish, at work.

“Why is it important to save these endangered languages?” you might ask. Languages are conduits of human heritage. Each language represents its own culture and the speaker’s unique way of looking at the world. It also represents the different ways speakers express themselves and the way they communicate. For example, Cherokee (an endangered language spoken by people originally from southeastern regions of the US) does not have a word for “goodbye”. In Cherokee, you can only say: “I will see you again”. When a language dies, we lose cultures, entire civilisations, but also, we lose people. We lose perspectives, ideas, opinions, most importantly, we lose a unique way of being human.

The idea to celebrate International Mother Language Day was the initiative of Bangladesh. It was approved by United National Education, Science and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1999 and has been celebrated yearly on the 21st of February since the year 2000. The 21st of February is the anniversary of the day people in Bangladesh fought to recognise the Bengali (Bangla) language. This day is celebrated to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote multilingualism. Every year, UNESCO chooses a different theme.

Globally 40 per cent of the population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand. Nevertheless, progress is being made in mother tongue-based multilingual education with growing understanding of its importance, particularly in early schooling, and more commitment to its development in public life.

The theme of 2022 is “Using technology for multilingual learning: Challenges and opportunities”. It focuses on the potential role of technology to advance multilingual education and support the development of quality teaching and learning for all.

UNESCO organised a webinar, happening today, 21 February from 11:00 am to 1:00 pm (GMT +1) to celebrate Mother Language Day 2022. Click here for more details about the event.

Happy International Mother Language Day!

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