Multilingualism has always been the norm rather than an exception. Often, however, while some languages are highly appreciated and encouraged, others are discounted and considered problematic, and potentially even harmful to ‘proper’ integration. According to Article 30 of the United Nation’s Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child belonging to a minority group must not be denied the right to speak their own language or exercise their cultural rights[1]. And yet, children are often unable to do at school so even though speaking your mother language, or home language, is a fundamental birth right rather than a privilege, regardless of where you live. It sounds logical and straightforward, doesn’t it? But how far would you go to defend this right and would you be willing to even risk your life for it?

An atrocious 40% of the world’s population is still unable to receive education in a language “they speak or understand”[2], which is astounding considering how fundamental it is to children’s education. International Mother Language Day, which we celebrate today, is a part of the global effort to raise awareness and remediate this dire problem as well as to promote linguistic diversity. It was approved by UNESCO’s General Conference in 1999 after an initiative by Bangladesh.

In 1947, after the British occupation of the Indian subcontinent ended and they withdrew from the area, it was divided in two independent states – India and Pakistan. The latter, however, comprised two parts – West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan) and East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), separated by a large mass of land that was part of India. Apart from a much larger population, East Pakistan was also linguistically and culturally different. The main language there was Bangla or Bengali whereas the West Pakistani spoke Urdu – two entirely different languages with different scripts. Unfortunately, since the government of the state was predominantly West Pakistani, it was established that the school language for all of Pakistan would be Urdu. A further blow was dealt when Bangla was completely removed from the curriculum and was excluded from official government mediums, such as currency. State-wide demonstrations erupted following these oppressive and discriminative linguistic policies which were held consistently for five years following the partition and became known as the Bengali Language Movement. The incessant efforts of the West Pakistani government to dismiss Bangla, aiming to eliminate it and thus assimilate the population of East Pakistan, turned the Bengali Language Movement into the enabler on the quest for freedom.

The pinnacle was reached on February 21st 1952 when university students announced massive protests. The government countered the announcement by issuing a ban on gatherings including more than three people. It was a recipe for disaster. Massive protests, widely supported by the general population, were held regardless of the restrictions. The police used brutal force, tear gas and gunfire in their attempts to squash the uprising. Hundreds were arrested and injured. Five people died, sacrificing their lives to defend a fundamental human right. Five people died and hundreds suffered for their mother language.

The rise of global mobility has catapulted the need for more flexible mother-tongue based approaches to education to new heights. Families migrate more than ever before and because of it a very large number of children are schooled in a language different than the one(s) spoken at home. They enter the education system unable to understand or express themselves in that language and are usually “thrown” into a system that forces them to “sink or swim”, with little or no home-language support. They often struggle because they have to learn the language and acquire the academic content at the same time, potentially losing their mother language in favour of the societal language eventually.

There is compelling evidence, however, that developing proficiency in the home language plays a significant role in acquiring the school language and, ultimately, in achieving academic success. A lack of home/mother-language support might result in greater difficulties in acquiring the school language at a level sufficient for educational success, thus making a child feel likea failure. Apart from the prospect of academic success, inclusive education that takes into account student’s mother language(s) helps children feel more welcome at school, have higher self-esteem and feel part of a community that recognizes and values their language(s) and culture.

           If a home language is not supported at school, which is often the case in mainstream schools, parents might face serious challenges in motivating their children to continue to develop it,especially as they grow older. Learning about the benefits of supporting home-language education as well as the quality and quantity of the input while always maintaining open communication is crucial. Discussing the reasons for engaging the child(ren) in extra-curricular activities and considering their opinions in the process has the potential of being a catalyst for success.

Lack of suitable resources that support the development of academic home language proficiency is also an issue that a lot of families face. Often they are even unaware of it since their child(ren)’s conversational fluency seems like a good enough level of language proficiency.

So, what can parents/guardians do?

Some ideas to support the development of the home language are, for example,

  • participation in extra-curricular language activities, such as heritage-language schools or community-run language initiatives
  • setting up “language clubs” that deal with the specific topics, tackled at school, in the respective mother tongue
  • approaching the teacher and asking for information about the academic content so it could be discussed in the home language in advance
  • inquiring about other children who share the same home language and having the children study together, or
  • volunteering to help out (potentially even during class) if there are a few children who speak the same mother tongue.

The need for more inclusive mother-tongue-supported education is self-evident and undeniable. Developing home languages is vital and at the heart of promoting and sustaining linguistic diversity. Languages are succumbing to a silent death and the global movement of people, settling and re-settling is exacerbating an already acute situation. Political agendas, cultural and ethnic assimilation are only a few of the factors contributing to the problem. Therefore, it is up to each and every one of us to work towards preserving our home languages and support our children in developing a mature proficiency in them, which would also contribute to preserving the culture and identity.



Author: Maria Potvin