COLOMBO: February 21 is observed every year as the International Mother Language Day to draw attention to disappearing and threatened languages across the world.

It was on this day in 1952, that the movement of the Bengalis of East Pakistan to get their language, Bengali, recognized as one of the two official languages of Pakistan reached a high point. Protesting crowds led by students, intellectuals and artistes were fired upon by the Pakistani police. The violence unleashed by the Pakistani State, and continued efforts to suppress Bengalis in multiple ways, eventually led to a movement aiming at the separation of East Pakistan from Pakistan to form a new state of Bangladesh.

In 1999, at the initiative of Bangladesh, UNESCO declared February 21 as the International Mother Language Day to stress the need to preserve, foster and save languages, hundreds of which have been dying for economic, social and political reasons.

The Trigger

After the Islamic country of Pakistan came into being 1947, the powers- that-be decided that the new country’s political and military establishments would be located in West Pakistan. Consequently, most decision makers and persons in positions of authority came from West Pakistan though at that time, the majority of Pakistanis (44 million) were living in East Pakistan and spoke Bengali. Only a minority of Pakistanis (25 million), who spoke Urdu, were in West Pakistan.

Urdu and Bengali were entirely different from each other with Urdu drawing from Persian and Arabic, and Bengali drawing from Sanskrit. Though the West and East Pakistanis were Muslims, culturally they were as different as chalk is from cheese.

The two languages had become two clashing rallying points. West Pakistanis were using Urdu to dominate East Pakistan and East Pakistanis were using Bengali to resist West Pakistani domination and assert their numerical power.

It was at an education summit in Karachi immediately after independence in 1947, that the West-Pakistani dominated government proposed that Urdu would be the only language used in the media and taught in schools. Bengali was removed from being an approved school subject, and was taken off official currency and stamps, according to reports. This led to widespread protests in East Pakistan.

The then Governor-General and founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, visited Dhaka during the height of political unrest and sought to squash the movement. He stated that the promoters of Bangla were seeking to divide Pakistani Muslims, calling them “enemies of Pakistan”. He reiterated that “Urdu, and only Urdu” would be the official language. He even repealed concessions that had been made by other politicians to appease the Bengalis.

West Pakistan’s refusal to recognize Bengali was quickly recognized as being part of a broader agenda of cultural and ethnic obliteration of the Bengali identity. As a consequence, the language movement in East Pakistan became a proxy for a broader fight for the right to self-determination.

During an attempt to storm the legislature, several student protesters were shot and killed by police. The deaths sparked widespread disorder. Adults and people from all walks of life joined the students in protest. A number of activists were shot dead by police. The martyrs of the language movement are now commemorated in the martyrs’ memorial called Shaheed Minar in Dhaka.

UNESCO’s Recognition of Disappearing Languages

Since the Bengali language movement sought to have the linguistic and cultural rights of an entire population recognized and respected, an appeal was made to UNESCO by the Bangladesh government to declare a day as International Mother Language Day to save threatened languages and their attendant cultures.

On November 17, 1999, UNESCO declared February 21st as International Mother Language Day. It was ratified by the UN General Assembly a decade later “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world”. Studies have shown that suppressing language impairs everything from health to school performance.

According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger, between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct. A third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. Every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker. Fifty to ninety percent of the existing languages are predicted to disappear by the next century.

For much of the 20th century, governments across the world had imposed language on indigenous people, often through coercion. Some 100 aboriginal languages in Australia had disappeared since European settlers arrived. Globally 40% of the population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand.

UNESCO has classified “languages in trouble”. The following are the categories: Vulnerable - most children speak the language, but it may be restricted to certain domains (e.g., home); Definitely endangered - children no longer learn the language as a 'mother tongue' in the home; Severely endangered - language is spoken by grandparents and older generations; while the parent generation may understand it, they do not speak it to children or among themselves; Critically endangered - the youngest speakers are grandparents and older, and they speak the language partially and infrequently; Extinct - there are no speakers left.

Why Languages Go Out of Use

Languages disappear for various reasons. Among them are: political suppression; demographic inequalities; national need for uniformity; administrative convenience; globalization, migration across linguistic regions for economic reasons; emergence of international languages due to globalization; the need for linguistic mergers to meet a common threat.

In India, the move by the Central government to make Hindi the sole official language of the country led to a violent movement in the State of Tamil Nadu in the 1960s. The Tamils feared that they would be overwhelmed by the country’s Hindi-speaking majority which provided the country’s political elite.

The adoption of English as an associated official language in India was dictated by the need to have a common language to administer multi-lingual India. But with the elite adopting English as their first language, the use and prestige of Indian language suffered. Globalization, with English emerging as the preferred world language, only further strengthened the dominance of English speakers in India.

International migration brought about by economic globalization enhanced the value of languages like English and downgraded other Indian languages. Urbanization within countries led to internal migration, which in turn led to adoption of a new language and the disappearance or non-use of other languages.

The language of the political elite tends to get adopted by others for social and economic survival and mobility. For example the Eurasian Dutch Burghers of Ceylon, whose mother language was Dutch under Dutch rule, adopted English when the British took over the island because they wanted to continue to be associated with the White ruling class.

Linguistic Mergers

In democracies were numbers count, small linguistic groups merge to form bigger units to get greater political clout. Many individual languages in North India were downgraded and fell into disuse when Hindi was adopted as the common language of the “Hindi belt”. The Hindi speaking “majority” in today’s India are actually a coalition of several linguistic groups like the Mythili, Bhojpuri, and Awadhi groups. Collectively, the “Hindi speakers” are the most powerful in India.

In Karnataka State in South India, languages like Tulu and Coorgi were set aside, and Kannada was adopted as the language of the State to give Karnataka linguistic uniformity and a single identity. But this has created a problem in Belgaum in North Karnataka, where Marathi speakers are not willing to get submerged in the Kannada identity. The language problem here has created a Marathi speakers’ movement to seek union with Marathi-speaking Maharashtra.

In Sri Lanka, the 70 year ethnic issue had its beginnings in language use. The SWRD Bandaranaike government’s declaration in 1956 to make Sinhala the only official language in Sri Lanka triggered protests in the Tamil-majority areas of the North and East. The movement for language rights eventually led to a movement for political autonomy which later on became an armed struggle of humongous proportions.