COLOMBO: The International Mother Language Day, which is celebrated annually on February 21, is of critical importance. History and research tell us that the “mother tongue” has social, political, cultural and educational dimensions which the world can ill afford to ignore.

The Mother Language Day is meant to: (1) uphold the pride of every indigenous language; (2) encourage resistance to the hegemony of any linguistic group over another as this invariably leads to cultural and political hegemony; (3) make education accessible to everyone; (4) foster tolerance and inclusiveness in multi-lingual countries.

The day also underscores the need to save hundreds of languages which are dying and revive languages thought to have died, with a view to enhancing cultural richness and ensuring linguistic and cultural diversity.

The idea of celebrating the International Mother Language Day came from Bangladesh, a country which broke away from Pakistan to safeguard its language, Bengali, from being eroded/nullified by Urdu.

In a way, Bangladesh’s independence struggle began in 1948 with the movement to get Bengali recognized as an official language in Pakistan on par with Urdu, on several grounds including the fact that Bengali was the language of 56% of Pakistanis. A landmark in the history of that struggle was the martyrdom of Abdus Salam, Abul Barkat, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abdul Jabbar and Shafiur Rahman at the hands of the police on February 21, 1952. It may have been the first instance of people sacrificing their lives for their mother tongue. Later, in 1965, Tamils of India sacrificed their lives in the anti-Hindi agitation in Madras.

Bengali was made a co-official language of Pakistan in 1956 but by then, other issues of inequity between Bengali-speaking East Pakistan and Urdu-speaking West Pakistan cropped up to gradually create a strong movement for autonomy and independence.

It was the Awami League, the present governing party in Bangladesh, which spearheaded the language movement. The mother party, Muslim League, had stood for Urdu and Urdu alone. One of the active young Awami Leaguers was Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who eventually led the successful fight for national independence. Against this background it was natural that the international commemoration of the language movement should be proposed by Sheikh Mujib’s daughter, Sheikh Hasina, when she became Prime Minister.

It was in 1999 that UNESCO was persuaded by the Sheikh Hasina government to recognize February 21 as International Mother Language Day, which came into being in 2000. In 2007 the United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution calling upon member states “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world…” to “promote unity in diversity and international understanding, through multilingualism and multiculturalism.”

Threatened Languages

Writing in National Geographic in 2018, Nina Strochlic quoted the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger to say that between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct. “Today, a third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. Every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker and 50 to 90% of them are predicted to disappear by the next century.”

Political persecution, a lack of preservation, and globalization are to blame for the dwindling language diversity. “For much of the 20th century, governments across the world have imposed languages on indigenous people, often through coercion. Some 100 aboriginal languages in Australia have disappeared since European settlers arrived. A half-century after China annexed Tibet, dozens of distinct dialects with unique alphabets are on the verge of extinction,” says Strochlic.

But she also points out that most languages die not because of outright persecution, but by being made “unviable”. The withholding of political patronage, urbanization, globalization, migration and assimilation into other communities leads to language death.

Writing in NewsClick in 2019, scholar Purushothama Bilimale points out how the pedestal given to Hindi in India not only relegates other constitutionally recognized languages to the shadows but also virtually obliterated scores of dialects which could become languages.

Because of the promotion of standardised Hindi, many languages of northern India were left to decay and die. “This exercise steadily emaciated pre-Hindi languages like Braj, Awadhi, Rajasthani, Bafeli, Bhojpuri, Bundeli, Maithili, Chattisgarhi, Garhwali, Haryanvi, Kanauji, Kumauni, Magadhi, Marwari among others. Sadly, the Union Government has no plan of action to strengthen these languages and the Home Minister has no time to pay attention to these languages,” Bilimale reports.

The People’s Linguistic Survey of India has listed 19,569 languages. It lists about 40 languages with more than 10 lakh speakers, 60 with more than 1 lakh speakers and 122 languages with more than 10 thousand speakers. Moreover, there are 99 languages waiting to be recognized as “official” in the Eighth Constitution to the Constitution of India.

The attempt to impose Hindi on Tamils in 1965 led to the virtual obliteration of the national political parties in Tamil Nadu. But Hind zealots in the central government continue to foist it in insidious ways.

Effect on Cultures

With the death of languages or dialects, cultures would also vanish, sociologists say. When Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was in the thick of the Bengali language movement, one of his fears was that Bengali folk songs and poetry will go out of use. Bengalis would have lost their distinctness if Bengali was replaced by Urdu.

The Bengali language movement had to face obstacle after obstacle. Some key Muslim Leaguers who had agreed to Bengali becoming an official language tried to get rid of the Bengali script and adopt the Urdu script.

Now linguistic awareness has begun to rise in Pakistan too. There are intellectuals coming from Punjab, Sindh, and Balochistan who want the revival of these languages through official recognition and promotion. They point out that Urdu is the mother tongue only of a small number of people who migrated from India when Pakistan was founded in 1947.

In independent Sri Lanka, the decision to switch from English to Swabhasha (one’s own language) in educational and governmental institutions, unlocked the enormous potential of the masses and released new political and socio-cultural forces.

Value in Education

Carolyn Savage writing in Independent Education Today says that a strong foundation in a child’s mother tongue leads to a much better understanding of the curriculum as well as a more positive attitude towards the school. When a child uses the mother tongue, he or she acquires a whole host of other essential qualities, such as critical thinking and literary skills. It is these latter skills that they take with them into higher education.

“Research tells us that any skills and concepts gained in the learner’s home language don’t have to be re-taught when they transfer to a second language,” Savage submits.

The importance of the mother tongue was also studied by Professor Jim Cummins from the University of Toronto. He found that the mother tongue makes it easier for children to pick up, learn other languages and helps develop a child’s personal, social and cultural identity; and helps children develop confidence in themselves. Further, skills learnt in the mother tongue do not have to be re-taught when the child transfers to a second language as they do in college or university.

Children learning in their mother tongue enjoy school more and learn faster due to feeling comfortable in their environment. Self-esteem is higher among children learning in their mother tongue. And most importantly, parent-child interaction increases as the parent can assist with the child’s homework.