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2/21/2019 3:59:32 PM

International Mother Language Day: Preserve linguistic diversity

“The many different languages spoken across the world reflect how history has shaped the ways in which we speak and think today. The language we learn from earliest childhood – our mother language – helps to link new generations to the past. It is part of our heritage.” (the United Nations Association – UK). 

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What is mother language?

‘Mother language’, or ‘mother tongue’, is the language one spoke from earliest childhood. For most people, this is just one language but children in multilingual families may learn two simultaneously.

UNESCO considers mother languages to be an essential part of culture and identity, and carriers of values and knowledge. They are vital to the preservation and transmission of traditions, expressions, songs, jokes and rituals, which make all our lives richer.

Out of about 6000 languages in the world, more than 200 have the status of national languages and a few hundred more have established literacy – meaning sufficient people use them on a regular basis.  Still, every language reflects a unique world-view with its own value systems, philosophy and particular cultural features. When a language is lost, it is not only the words and their meaning that disappear. It also involves a loss of unique cultural knowledge embodied in the language for centuries, including historical, spiritual and ecological knowledge.

Why we need to preserve mother language?

Many mother languages are on the brink of extinction.Just like endangered animal species, some languages are rapidly dying out and shared commitment and interest is needed help keep them alive. At one time, there were between 7,000 and 8,000 distinct languages worldwide.

Over the past three centuries, languages have died out and disappeared at a dramatic and steadily increasing pace, especially in the Americas and Australia. Now, very few people speak most of the 6,000 known languages around the world.

About half of the 6,000 or so languages spoken in the world are under threat. Linguistic diversity is increasingly threatened as more and more languages disappear. Globally 40 per cent of the population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand.

Poster of International Mother Language Day by UNESCO

There are some reasons which make a language disappear, for example, when a government pursues a policy of just one dominant language.

In some countries, a particular language might be preferred for political or cultural reasons. This can result in the domination of one language in education and other public services. People that don’t speak the dominant language or speak it poorly can thus be disadvantaged and in the worst cases, it can lead to discrimination in daily life, exclusion from jobs or services and even oppression. It can also result in other languages becoming endangered and ultimately extinct.

In addition, Globalisation, migration, urbanisation and the spread of new technology are factors that can have adverse impact on language diversity, particularly when traditional ways of life are put under pressure. But they can also help to protect and spread languages.

About 90 percent of the current content on the Internet is only available in 12 languages. However, the digital tools are also helping to preserve languages that otherwise would have been lost to obscurity.

Researchers at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, for example, have made extensive recordings of Boa Sr., the last surviving speaker of the Bo language of the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. Although she died in 2005, there is now a rich digital archive of materials, making the language and the cultural, historical and ecological knowledge that it relayed available to future generations.

International Mother Language Day, a reminder of mother tongue preservation

International Mother Language Day was established by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1999 to celebrate languages and promote international understanding through multilingualism and multiculturalism. The date, February 21, represents the day in 1952 on which three students from Dhaka University were killed during a demonstration calling for recognition for their language Bangla (also known as Bengali). 

UNESCO believes in the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity for sustainable societies. It is within its mandate for peace that it works to preserve the differences in cultures and languages that foster tolerance and respect for others.  

“Indigenous peoples have always expressed their desire for education in their own languages, as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Since 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages, the theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day will be indigenous languages as a factor in development, peace and reconciliation.

Indigenous peoples number some 370 million and their languages account for the majority of the approximately 7,000 living languages on Earth. Many indigenous peoples continue to suffer from marginalization, discrimination and extreme poverty, and are the victims of human-rights violations (...). On this International Mother Language Day, I thus invite all UNESCO Member States, our partners and education stakeholders to recognize and enforce the rights of indigenous peoples." says Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day 2019.

As part of its work to promote mother language and protect linguistic and cultural diversity, UNESCO has created an Atlas of World’s Languages in Danger. Available both in print and online, the Atlas raises awareness of endangered languages and the need to safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity among governments, speaker communities and the general public.

The Atlas is also used to monitor the status of the different languages that are in danger and to show global trends in linguistic diversity. The latest edition from 2010 lists about 2,500 languages, of which 230 have been extinct since 1950.  The online version is interactive, allowing users to provide feedback and suggest endangered languages to be included. Engaging with users in this way enables UNESCO to regularly update and improve the Atlas.

At the same time, UNESCO uses a scale which outlines the degree of endangerment when classifying the languages included in the Atlas./.

  ( VNF )
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