International Mother Language Day is the 15th anniversary of UNESCO's first attempt to celebrate the diversity in language and cultural identity outside of a national identity. This year focused on the detriment of dying languages and education.
Happy International Mother Language Day!
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February 21, 2015 marks the 15th anniversary for what the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and United Nations General Assembly feel is a way to appropriately "promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world."
Intended to inspire a multicultural approach to linguistic and cultural diversity, the date itself represents the 1952 killing of four students demonstrating the need to acknowledge their language, Bangla, in what was Pakistan then. They were killed by Dhaka police. The area is now called Bangladesh.
The UN believes the best way to combat xenophobia is to educate cultures through a diverse network of languages and an acknowledgment of the importance in language in the lives of citizens worldwide. This year's theme is "inclusion in and through education: Language counts" and focuses on eliminating inequality. Because linguistic minorities are often the poorest and most underrepresented, UNESCO continues to look for solutions.
Education and language are deeply tied because of the need to understand the ways the national tongue is promoted at the cost of those who speak another language entirely. The UN itself considers the ability to communicate in one's mother language to be a basic right.
Smithsonian.com's Mary Linn believes "language is what makes us human" because humans "use a highly complex communication system to explain our basic needs or to describe our wildest dreams." Mother tongue, or what is now referred to as mother language, is what children first learn at home and often speak natively.
And many languages are in danger of being lost as globalization seeks a common linguistic approach to conduct business and personal lives as people are forced beyond xenophobic lines. And as Linn points out, soon there may be only 1,000 languages left internationally. That's a significant drop from the up to 7,000 previously spoken.
In today's world, a family may not only speak one or two languages, but many. It is not unusual for a child to speak multiple languages on a regular basis, and to force a choice of first language is "rather like asking which color you saw first." Oftentimes, people will proclaim the safest language (be it political or regional) but will not stop speaking multilingually.
In the U.S., "55 million English-speaking Americans use another language in the home" and even the "International Mother Language Day" manages to eliminate the multiple language aspect of a multicultural global society.
So how do you engage in an international conversation? Learn about your neighbors. Find out what they speak, and the background. You don't need to have a 5-hour exchange, but simply show you're interested in the world in which you live in.
Colonialism and language eradication are inseparable, as the conquering nation often demanded complete assimilation of land, resources, and people to fit within a single identity. As the colonizing powers lost territories back to the native citizens, a new sense of identity formed where the original language, or close proximity, was returned. However, as some of the subjugation has only ended post-World War II, the transition hasn't been easy. It’s not easy to rework one's entire identity after forced assimilation.
And Información desde América Latina notes that “languages are of incalculable cultural wealth, is a unique way of interpreting reality, a cultural rather than joint identity, social integration, communication.” UNESCO estimates that 100,000 speakers are needed to keep a language alive. In Latin America, the predominant languages are Spanish and Portuguese, but many indigenous languages may soon be extinct.
In 2009, the Sociolinguistic Atlas of Indigenous Peoples in Latin America showed that there were 522 distinct native languages outside the majority languages in the region. And over 90 percent of the world’s languages are expected to be extinct by 2050 due to globalization and capitalism.
The Linguistics Society of America reports “although language loss may be voluntary or involuntary, it always involves pressure of some kind, and it is often felt as a loss of social identity or as a symbol of defeat.” Sounds kind of like colonizing a nation already rooted in cultural identity. Eliminating the cultural relevance does not just directly effect a group’s past, but their “prayers, myths, ceremonies, poetry, oratory, and technical vocabulary to everyday greetings, leave- takings, conversational styles, humor, ways of speaking to children, and terms for habits, behaviors, and emotions.” The entire make up a community is wrapped up in understanding a language.
Oxford University Press's Kiyokazu Okita reminds readers "since language and nationalism are closely related, we should be careful that emphasis on mother tongue not lead to a narrow-minded linguistic nationalism either." To create a space where inclusion doesn't lead to exclusion. In other words, better than those oppressing the native popular.
Okita discusses the linguistic roots of Bangladesh, where one can hear a selection of languages including Bangla, Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, Japanese and even English. The country celebrates Shoheed Divosh (Martyrs’ Day), or Ekushey (Twenty-First), by commemorating the shared experience of fighting for freedom against those trying to suppress native tongues and cultural identity. The celebration of those students and protestors pushing for freedom has become synonymous with the Bangladeshis.
Eventually, the celebration extended to the entire month of February to the Bangla language. And Okita supports Linn’s assertion, saying that “language is the vehicle of culture and tradition” and “Bangla thus became a symbol of Bangladeshis’ cultural, regional and ethnic identity.”
Like the Bangladeshis, Armenians combined International Mother Language Day with a second tradition, though this one was far happier. According to Asbarez, “school-children from 8th to 11th classes were given a task to interpret in their own words how they see the role of their mother language in the modern world” through the “Friends of UN – Armenia” Facebook group. All contestants received participation certificates, as well rewards from DPI, UNICEF and the National Library.
Armineh Haladjian from UN Department of Public Information Yerevan Office (UN DPI) congratulated and thanked the students, parents, and teachers for encouraging and helping to push the children towards a global future. She also advocated a network of similar minded citizens based on social media and the latest technology.
Antares publishers and UNESCO National Commission representatives presented the awards.
Combined with the Armenian observance, Book Donation Day, Haladjian asserted that the “70-year-old UN has always esteemed the role of the mother languages at the same time promoting multilingualism.” She also discussed how global factors, such as the internet, destroy boundaries and allow international citizens to interact and communicate on multiple levels.
Languages are necessary in creating a rich path to the cultural history of a region. LSA notes groups may keep the language alive, even against a majority power, if creative. The New Zealand Maori population opened up ‘language nests’ run by elders who teach nursery school-aged children how to speak their native language. Conferences, symposiums and organized events also allow elders to share their information and pass on tips in maintaining a mother language in a world of increasing assimilation.
Linguists study collected information and attempt to record the language before it dies out, offering a piece of history that will not be forgotten. The idea is to preserve the roots of a group, to know where people’s history begins. “The thousands of languages spoken in the world today have evolved over the entire course of human history. Every group of related languages is separated from every other group by at least 5000 years of development, usually more.”
Preserving a mother language is not just an oral communication tool, but a tool to help identify the past victories and struggles of a group of people. According to Kenyan Education Cabinet Secretary Jacob Kaimenyi, “Children are unable to adjust to the school environment or participate in the lessons and they end up disliking school” if the school language is different than mother tongue.
Like other leaders, he is convinced that students are more likely to build a comprehensive second language by maintaining, expanding, and communicating in a first language.
Kenya’s status as a multilingual nation offers the chance for people to communicate fluently. “"The constitution states that Kiswahili be used alongside English, the Kenyan Sign Language, Braille and other communication methods for people living with disabilities.” This means no matter where an early childhood school is located, the primary language must be analogous with the region.
February 21 is International Mother Language Day and it’s fitting that this year focuses on preserving a language through education. Celebrating a mother language enhances a child’s ability to be educated in multiple subjects and provides the opportunity for ease in understanding a second or third language. Multilingual families should be embraced for exposing children to the forgotten side of colonization and globalization; namely that cultural identity is not dependent on national identity.
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Sources: AllAfrica.com, Asbarez, Información desde América Latina, Linguistics Society of America, Oxford University Press, Smithsonian, Sociolinguistic Atlas of Indigenous Peoples in Latin America, UN, UNESCO