February 21 is International Mother Language Day. Recognised by the United Nations as a day
“to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world
It is a day when all involved in multilingualism, whether personally or professionally, should stop and consider where they can make a difference.
February 21 is not a random date choice for this observance. On this date in 1952, student protesters in Pakistan were killed during a demonstration supporting the inclusion of Bengali as the second official language of Pakistan. Yes, they were shot at by police, for daring to insist on their right to use their “mother language”. Throughout history, minorities have been oppressed and discriminated against through the vehicle of language. All over Europe, regional languages died out due to policies disallowing the use and teaching of languages other than the majority, policies that endure, both overtly and covertly, today (France, I’m looking at you!). And all over the world minority languages are dying out due to lack of support: financial, moral and political. Outright violence in the name of language policy may be rare, but people suffer every day from the effects of government attempts to control and proscribe language use.
We don’t always notice it happening, because it isn’t always “newsworthy”. People are more careful about how they phrase things now – instead of saying “Your language is not as good as ours.” they say “Maybe you should speak more of *our* language to your child, so they can learn it better.” Or they say “Only *our* language is allowed in this school, because it is the only necessary language.”. Or they say “Maybe you should only speak one language to your child, so you don’t confuse them.”.
But no matter how they phrase it, the intention is the same – to proscribe to someone what language is acceptable, and which language they should use. And that is why we still need International Mother Language Day (although I’d argue for a more inclusive name). Because linguistic hegemony is still happening, everywhere, and many people still find it acceptable to infringe on the language rights of minority speakers.
I’m trying to make a difference this year by championing the right of every child to have their “mother language” respected and supported at school, and to bring about better attitudes towards multilingualism within schools.
Where can you make a difference this year?
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.
—from the United Nations International Mother Language Day microsite