Today is International Mother Language Day, a celebration of linguistic diversity and multilingual education. How will you be celebrating?

Every year on February 21, the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and UN agencies celebrate International Mother Language Day. The day aims to promote linguistic diversity and multilingual education, and remembers the four students who were killed on this day in 1952 because they campaigned to use their mother language, Bengali, in Bangladesh.

Some facts:

  • International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November 1999.
  • The date represents the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of the then Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.
  • International Mother Language Day has been observed every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
  • On 16 May 2007, the General Assembly proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Languages to promote unity in diversity and international understanding, through multilingualism and multiculturalism.

The message for 2012 from UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova can be found below:

Nelson Mandela once said that “if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart”. The language of our thoughts and our emotions is our most valuable asset. Multilingualism is our ally in ensuring quality education for all, in promoting inclusion and in combating discrimination. Building genuine dialogue is premised on respect for languages. Each representation of a better life, each development goal is expressed in a language, with specific words to bring it to life and communicate it. Languages are who we are; by protecting them, we protect ourselves.

UNESCO has celebrated International Mother Language Day for 12 years now and directs its energies towards protecting linguistic diversity. This thirteenth celebration is dedicated to multilingualism for inclusive education. The work of researchers and the impact of multilingualism policies have proven that people perceive intuitively that linguistic diversity accelerates the achievement of the Millennium Development
Goals and Education for All goals in particular. Use of the mother tongue at school is a powerful remedy against illiteracy. The challenge, however, lies in achieving this truth in the classroom. Excluded population groups, such as indigenous peoples, are often those whose mother tongues are ignored by education systems. Allowing them to learn from a very early age in their mother tongue, and then in national, official or other languages, promotes equality and social inclusion.

UNESCO Mobile Learning Week has shown that use of mobile technologies in education is an excellent means of boosting inclusive education. Combined with multilingualism, these technologies increase our scope for action tenfold. Let us make the most of them. Our generation is advantaged by having new communication media and a new Internet-based worldwide public arena: it cannot accept an impoverishment of languages.

Linguistic diversity is our common heritage. It is fragile heritage. Nearly half of the more than 6,000 languages spoken in the world could die out by the end of the century. UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger is the performance chart for this struggle. Language loss impoverishes humanity. It is a retreat in the
defence of everyone’s rights to be heard, to learn and to communicate. Moreover, each language also conveys cultural heritage that increases our creative diversity. Cultural diversity is as important as biological diversity in nature. They are closely linked. Some indigenous peoples’ languages carry knowledge on the biodiversity
and management of ecosystems. This linguistic potential is an asset for sustainable development and deserves to be shared. UNESCO also intends to highlight this message at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio.

The vitality of languages depends on all those who speak them and rally round to protect them. UNESCO pays tribute to them and ensures that their voices are heard when education, development and social cohesion policies are being formulated. Multilingualism is a living resource; let us use it for the benefit of all.

Irina Bokova

Every year, UNESCO releases posters which expresses the themes of International Mother Language Day.

How will you be celebrating your mother language today? Let us know in the comments below, and like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter to see how the Language Insight team will be getting involved!