The Turbulent Origins Behind International Mother Language Day

Asian woman in red coat shouting into megaphone.

After protests turned deadly in East Pakistan in 1952, it seemed unlikely that the mainly-Bengali speaking protesters would ever realise their dream: that of Bengali being a recognised national language on the same level as Urdu. Years of unrest followed, culminating in acceptance of Bengali as an official national language and the creation of International Mother Language Day, to celebrate linguistic diversity and multilingualism worldwide.

Every year since 2000, International Mother Language Day has been observed on 21st February. However, its origins are way back in 1947, when the state of Pakistan was first created out of the partition of Britain’s Indian Empire.

Pakistan was created in 1947 as an Islamic country (separate from the Hindu-majority Republic of India) and had two geographically distinct parts: East Pakistan and West Pakistan. These parts were separated by India between them and were also very different in terms of language and culture. In 1948, the Pakistani government declared Urdu the sole national language of the entire country, despite the fact that Bengali—or Bangla—was spoken by the majority of the population. 

People living in East Pakistan protested as they were the ones who mostly spoke Bengali as their mother tongue. They wanted Bengali to be named as another national language alongside Urdu and raised this as an issue in the constituent Assembly of Pakistan for the first time on 23rd February 1948.

However, the government decided against making Bengali another national language and, instead, fought to stop the protests by banning public meetings and rallies. To counter this, students from the University of Dhaka worked with the general public to arrange massive rallies and meetings. 

Everything came to a head on 21st February 1952. Police opened fire on rallies, killing four students and injuring hundreds of others. The deaths sparked civil unrest that continued for years, especially when it came to observing the anniversary. On the first anniversary, people across East Pakistan wore black badges in solidarity with the victims and most offices, banks and schools closed. However, some West Pakistani politicians spoke out against this and declared that anyone who wanted Bangla to become an official language was an ‘enemy of the state.’

In 1954, students organised demonstrations for the night of the 21st February, with various halls of the University of Dhaka raising black flags in mourning. There had been several political changes since 1952, and the United Front ministry had already ordered the creation of the Bangla Academy to promote, develop, and preserve the Bengali language, literature, and heritage; the constituent assembly had also resolved to grant official status to Bengali. This government was dissolved in May 1954, however, and did not regain power until 1955—the 1956 anniversary of the deaths, then, was the first one that was observed peacefully.

When the first constitution of Pakistan was enacted on 29th February 1956, Bengali was finally adopted, alongside Urdu, as an official language of Pakistan.

Nowadays, Bangladeshis celebrate Language Movement Day or Shohid Dibosh (Martyrs’ Day) as a major national holiday. People often visit the Shaheed Minar, which is a monument that was built in memory of the martyrs; there is also a month-long event, the Ekushey Book Fair, which commemorates the movement.

In 1999, Bangladesh officially sent a proposal to UNESCO to declare 21st February International Mother Language Day. UNESCO supported the proposal unanimously and it was first observed globally in the year 2000.

Linguistic Diversity and Endangered Languages

Of course, the movement that sparked everything was a case of a minority language being oppressed by a majority language; as a result of this, one of the aims of International Mother Language Day is to promote linguistic diversity globally, as well as multilingualism on a societal and individual level.

UNESCO has raised many proposals to support the world’s languages, particularly those that are most in danger of becoming extinct. Last year, for example, was the Year of Indigenous Languages—which will also be the focus of a decade from 2022-2032—which was an opportunity to promote those languages which often tend to be endangered. 

Currently, with around 43% of the world’s approximately 7,000 languages being endangered and, with over half of the world’s total languages expected to become extinct in the next 100 years, this promotion of linguistic diversity is more necessary than ever. 

This is also true when we consider everything we lose when a language is lost. Knowledge is encoded in language alongside culture and with the way our climate is shifting, this loss is particularly sharp. Climate change is leading to people becoming displaced, so moving to communities where their language is not spoken; they then often shift to using the dominant language and theirs is forgotten. Also, as the Smithsonian Magazine points out, ‘in many places, indigenous languages and their speakers are rich sources of information about the world around them and the plants and animals in the area where they live.’ This makes that knowledge particularly precious considering what we are facing—and will continue to face in the years ahead.

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International Mother Language Day: 2020’s Theme

Every year has a theme, something to focus efforts around. 2020 is ‘languages without borders’—so, the idea that local and cross-border languages can promote peaceful dialogue between communities and help to preserve indigenous languages.

The USA is an interesting case for this; all of its major languages (English, Spanish) are non-indigenous and there is a growing movement to preserve and promote its indigenous languages, many of which have suffered due to their close proximity with more dominant languages as well as specific efforts to dissuade their use.

One important thing, then, is to encourage heritage speakers to use their language. This could mean if they learnt the language as a child, that they are encouraged to take it up again. If they never had the chance to learn anything at all, then there should be an accessible way for them to learn, especially if it is a language they identify with culturally or was spoken by their family at some point.

International Mother Language Day: 2021’s Theme

As we move into 2021, a new theme has been announced for International Mother Language Day, and this is one that we are constantly thinking about at uTalk: languages and education.

From Audrey Azoulay, the Director-General of UNESCO:

The theme of the Day this year, “Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society”, thus encourages us to support multilingualism and the use of mother tongues, both at school and in everyday life. This is essential, because when 40% of the world’s inhabitants do not have access to education in the language they speak or understand best, it hinders their learning, as well as their access to heritage and cultural expressions. This year, special attention is being paid to multilingual education from early childhood, so that for children, their mother tongue is always an asset.

This is why, on our app, as well as being able to learn any of 145 different languages, you can also learn from around 100 of them. Hopefully, this will help some of you learn a new language this year!

How Can You Support International Mother Language Day?

First, no matter your native language, spend some time celebrating it today. But—and especially if your language is a dominant one, like English—also spend time celebrating the languages of the communities that surround you. If you speak the dominant language in your community, then all those minority languages are at some danger of being lost and it is worth seeing if there is anything you can do to help prevent that, even if that is just learning a few phrases yourself!

At uTalk, we are working hard to try and preserve and promote all kinds of endangered, indigenous or minority languages by working with native speaker communities, translators, and voice artists every time we add one to our app. We hope that we are helping to make these languages accessible to more people, particularly in those cases where we have heritage speakers affected by living in the diaspora or where the languages are confined to a relatively small or difficult to get to geographic area. 

Let us know how you are going to celebrate your language today!

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