International Mother Language Day; Preservation of Languages is Challenging

by Bo Singh

The International Mother Language Day is celebrated on February 21, but I got reminder this year a month earlier. Which was in form of a news item about the Canadian Government agreeing to settle class action claim “seeking reparations for the loss of language and culture brought on by Indian residential schools, for $2.8 billion.”

My mind was filled with thoughts and feelings for the loss of the Indian tribes. Suddenly a thought occurred, wait this could be fate of my mother tongue too, if we fail to safeguard and make efforts to preserve it. According to UN, “Every two weeks a language disappears taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage. At least 43% of the estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered.” The telltale sign were noticed by Guru Nanak Dev Ji (1469 -1539), when he observed this trait in Punjabis over 500 years back, as reflected in these words:

“Ghar ghar mian sabhanaa(n) jeeaa(n) bolee avar tumaaree. 6.” (SGGS, Pg. No. 1191)
Translation: In each and every home, everyone addresses using the term “Mian” for greetings (as used by the rulers); even your speech has changed, O people. ||6||

That was Guru Ji’s take on the language of Indian subcontinent then, but now it has been replaced by Hindi and English instead. The push to impose one national language over the regional languages can become the cause of their death knell.

Brief History of International Mother Language Day
February 21 is observed as the International Mother Language Day since 2020, based on the UNESCO declaration in 1999. It has been observed throughout the world since 21 February 2000. The declaration came up in tribute to the Language Movement by Bangladeshis (East Pakistan then). When Indian subcontinent was given independence in 1947, it was divided into India and Pakistan. The division was based on religion and the state of Pakistan had two geographically separate parts called East and West Pakistan. These two parts were very different from each other in the sense of culture, food, ideology, and language. In 1948, the Government of Pakistan declared Urdu to be the sole national language of Pakistan, even though Bengali or Bangla was spoken by the majority of people combining the populations of East Pakistan and West Pakistan. The East Pakistan people protested and refused to accept Urdu, as their mother language was Bangla. They demanded Bangla to be at least one of the national languages, in addition to Urdu. The rulers came down heavily on the protesters with protest rallies being outlawed and curfews imposed. On 21 February 1952, police opened fire on rallies killing many, plus injuring hundreds. This was a rare incident in history, where people had sacrificed their lives for their mother tongue.

Since then, Bangladeshis celebrate the International Mother Language Day as one of their tragic days. It was again in 1998, by the efforts of Vancouver based expatriates from Bangladesh that UN took the step of recognizing it as International Mother Language Day.

The situation in India was slightly different in the sense that although Hindi was declared as the national language with English as the link language, the regional languages were given a place. Although there was a strong opposition to this three-language formula (English, Hindi, Regional) but still the turmoil was not so devastating as there was some accommodation to the regional interests. Still with the thrust on Hindi and its overwhelming presence in media as TV, movies, music, and radio resulted in more and more people switching to it over regional languages. The effect is more pronounced when the children’s mother tongue is not the regional language where they are studying. Thus, they are missing that mother language connection in learning as the void is being filled by the national language. Another way the children are losing their connection to their mother tongue is when their parents have moved to other parts of the country because of their job or other economic opportunities.

The worldwide migration and internet has changed the way we have live and how we communicate. So, the preservation of languages is going to be challenging and will become a bigger and more immediate challenge if the speakers of that language are smaller in numbers. But the threat exists for all the languages that cannot make the top cut in terms of number of speakers and interest in that language. We need to take page from Hawaiian and make efforts to protect our own mother tongue today

2. UN. Multilingual Education – a necessity to transform education.
3. Ackerman, Diane. We Are Our Words. Parade, May 30, 2004.
4. Diamond, Jared. The Benefits of Multilingualism. Science.