February 21 is International Mother Language Day. UNESCO started this celebration day “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world”. With roughly 6500 languages spoken around the word, we have a lot to preserve, protect and celebrate.
The theme of Mother Language Day 2016 is “Quality education, language(s) of instruction and learning outcomes”. Mmm. That is a mouthful. Basically, UNESCO wants to stress the importance of appropriate languages of instruction in early years of schooling. Sadly, it is still not the norm everywhere to be able to go to school in your mother language.
I got schooled in my mother tongue (Afrikaans) when growing up in Apartheid South Africa, and I’ve written how awful things were done in the name of my mother tongue. The history of Mother Language Day is a similar story than the South African narrative where students were forced to learn in Afrikaans, the language of the oppressor. On February 21, 1952, students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, which is now the capital of Bangladesh. We remember these horrible events, honor the people who died in the process of standing up for their language, and then we try to promote language diversity in our sphere of influence.
I believe mother language instruction for young kids gives kids access to education. My daughter was in a two-way bilingual immersion program where half the class where Spanish speaking, some exclusively so. The Spanish speaking kids learned from the English speaking kids, and vice versa. Everyone is a learner and a teacher.
But since we chose to live in another country, where our mother tongue is not being spoken, I know mother language instruction is not possible for our girls. Instead, we made a choice to foster a love of language learning in our kids. They are proud to be (almost) trilingual, they enjoy showing off their language skills when meeting people who can speak Afrikaans or Spanish, and I know they will continue their multilingual journeys throughout their lives. Let us encourage each other to continue our language journeys, and let us encourage others to be proud of their mother language, whatever one of the 6500 languages it may be.
“A Senegalese poet said ‘In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.’ We must learn about other cultures (and I would add, languages) in order to understand, in order to love, and in order to preserve our common world heritage.”
– Yo Yo Ma