Today, February 21, is International Mother Language Day. This day was proclaimed by UNESCO “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world”. The date represents the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of two national languages of Pakistan (then), were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh (now).
Having grown up during Apartheid in South Africa, I know that June 16, 1976 carries similar significance for South Africans that February 21, 1952 does for the Bangladeshi people. This is the day that school children in Soweto protested the use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in secondary schools. The government forced Afrikaans education onto children who didn’t speak it. Police killed about 176 students during the Soweto uprising – the photo of Hector Pieterson being carried by Mbuyisa Makhubo after being shot, became the iconic image of the day. The day is now commemorated as Youth Day, a public holiday, in South Africa. Since my mother tongue is Afrikaans, I’m filled with sadness about what happened in the name of my mother language. South Africa now has 11 national languages, but mother language instruction is sadly still not always available in all locations.
Celebrating International Mother Language Day is a way to promote our unity in diversity. Our world is richer because of multilingualism and multiculturalism.
“We may have different religions, different languages, different colored skin, but we all belong to one human race.” - Kofi Annan
How will you celebrate your mother tongue today? I’m planning to sponsor a word in the Afrikaans dictionary (a fundraising way for survival of the dictionary), read only Afrikaans books for our evening reading ritual, and learn a new word in an unfamiliar language.
Happy International Mother Language Day!