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Are languages free? Thoughts on the International Mother Language day

Today is the International Mother Language Day, an annual event in UNESCO member states to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. This is mostly the international recognition of the Language Movement Day called ‘Ekushey February', which is commemorated in Bangladesh since 1952. The date of 21st February was chosen in homage to a number of ‘language martyrs’ from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) who were shot on 21st February 1952 in Dhaka, during public protest. They were demonstrating to establish their mother language Bangla as a national language along with Urdu, which was chosen as the sole official language in the then newly created Pakistan.

Shaheed Minar

Photo: Shaheed Minar, a solemn and symbolic sculpture erected in the place of the massacre. The monument is the symbol of Bangladesh Nationalism.

How important is the mother language?

Our mother tongue is more than a language, a soul inside us. It is an armory of the human mind; an archive of the history. We invent the world through language.

Mrunalini feats her mother tongue Telugu:

“How sweet our languages are, how proud they make us. How much we miss talking in our mother tongue. Especially, when we are away from it.”

Ripon Kumar Biswas in Bangladesh watchdog says:

“Mother tongue is the language of nature, which is intimately related to the individual because it is structured and upheld by local laws of nature, which structure the physiology of the individual.”

But it is even more than that. “One does not inhabit a country; one inhabits a language. That is our country, our fatherland –and no other;” said E. M. Cioran, the Rumanian-born French Philosopher.

That is why some times we see nationalism sparking in the world based on languages and language matters!

The freedom of languages in the world:

Thousands of local languages used as the daily means of expression are absent from education systems, the media, publishing and the public domain in general because of state policies.

We learn better in our mother tongue when it is taught in school (Mother tongue Dilemma –UNESCO News letter). But this is not the case of all minority languages. 476 million of world’s illiterate people speak minority languages and live in countries where children are mostly not taught in their mother language.

From Southern Azerbaijan under Iranian rule BayBak, Voice of a Nation says:

“It is more than 80 years that Iranian Fars authority has banned other nationalities language, such as Turks (majority in Iran), Arabs, Baluchs, Turkmens and Kurds. Every year in 21st of February all nationalities celebrate the International Mother Language Day named by UNESCO. But as before, of the day of celebration Iranian police will ride on the crowd and will arrest many.

Regarding news from Southern Azerbaijan, preparations for the 21st of February are continuing widely compare to last year. Also thousands of flyers been spread in Azerbaijan’s major cities. Capital Tebriz has been well prepared and the time for demonstration been set.”

The Unesco Courier:

Several thousand years old, the Ainu language spoken in northern Japan was dying out due to political pressure from the central government. At the end of the 20th century, this trend was reversed. While Ainu’s future is still not guaranteed because it isn’t taught in schools, the resurgence of interest is undeniable.

Sid writes in Picked Politics:

“International Mother Language Day deserves celebration in Zambia. The country has worked hard to establish and maintain political unity over the years. But as other societies are learning too late, it would be a tragedy if this hard-fought unity should be maintained at the expense of the variety of languages and dialects that have long called these lands home.”

Is your mother tongue facing extinction?

About 27 percent of the world's languages (about 6000) are threatened to be extinct. The Foundation for Endangered Languages says 83 percent of the world's languages are restricted to single countries, making them more vulnerable to the policies of a single government.

Abhinaba Basu at Geek Gyan says:

“A lot of people speaking English natively forget the importance of mother language due to its predominance. They take their language for granted. However, each year a bunch of languages become extinct, the latest being Eyak, which got extinct exactly a month ago with the death of Marie Smith Jones the last native Eyak speaking person.

I believe that if we don't actively try to preserve our mother language they will slowly become extinct. One of the most important things to preserve a language is to ensure that they are better covered by technology.”

Using ICT in Mother Language advocacy:

Citizen media is a great tool to promote own languages. According to Technorati there are more than 100 million blogs out there. A previous year’s report show that about 37% blogs are in Japanese followed by English (36%), Chinese (8%), Spanish(3%), Italian (3%), Portuguese (2%), French(2%) among others. And there are other growing language communities and they will rise eventually.

There are ICT based advocacy sites like Bisharat which promotes research, advocacy, and networking relating to use of African languages in software and web content.

Global Voices Online also supports and promotes the diversity of languages. Its Lingua project translates the contents of its main English page in a dozen languages. Now that is one example many international online media may want to follow to secure meaningful transfer of information to global readers.

Thumbnail: UNESCO poster

  • http://esperanto.memlink.ca mankso

    Thank you for the snippets about languages from around the world. I too am a member of a very small ethnic minority whose language (Manx Gaelic) has been almost crushed out of existence. Mother tongues are indeed important, but you didn’t mention the other side of the coin – the need for ‘universal bilingualism’ with a common, non-ethnic, second language as well. English is not adequate for this role, as English-speakers get an undeserved totally free ride thereby.

    Fortunately I am also a member of a second, non-territorial, linguistic community, namely that of Esperanto. Perhaps you should look into this too, especially since the 5th Asian Esperanto Congress just ended a few days ago in Bangalore?

    Prague Manifesto: http://lingvo.org/xx/2/3
    Update: http://www.uea.org/info/angle/an_ghisdatigo.html

  • http://pocketcultures.com/ pocketcultures

    Thanks – very interesting article.
    I totally agree that learning additional languages to enable cross-cultural communication is important, even for native English speakers.

    We recently posted about this article from the IHT which had an interesting discussion of the use of English as a universal second language:
    http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/04/09/asia/englede.php

    The article points out that the English used for international communication is evolving into something different from the English spoken for example in the UK.

    As a native English speaker myself, I’m not sure about getting a completely free ride – I am conscious that I change my language and accent when speaking to non-native speakers, in order to help communication. If I speak with my normal regional accent people rarely understand me!

  • http://www.remarkablesolutionsblog.com Bea

    I am so glad to see this post on International Language Day. I, too, posted on languages being under threat because I don’t think enough people believe it. There are more than a few ways our languages can be threatened and not just by not speaking it. Check it out at http://www.remarkablesolutionsblog.com/foreign/2008/02/linguists-unite.html or http://internationmusing.blogspot.com/2008/02/next-universal-language.html.

  • http://patwa.pbwiki.com Jens Wilkinson

    It’s a nice article, and let me just add to what mankso wrote about Esperanto. I also think that having a neutral language, a sort of world pidgin, would be beneficial as it would allow people to communicate without being put at an advantage or disadvantage due to their mothe tongue. And this would mean that people would not feel pressure to give up on their own native language.

    If you are interested, I am working to develop a sort of world pidgin, called Neo Patwa. It is described at patwa.pbwiki.com. There is actually an article on Global Voices, here:
    http://www.globalvoicesonline.org/2007/09/20/blogging-in-neo-patwa/

    But I think that a world language is something that we need to create, together, not something that I or anybody else can present as a finished project.

  • http://esperanto.memlink.ca mankso

    Jens wrote:
    >But I think that a world language is something that we need to create, together, not something that I or anybody else can present as a finished project.

    And developing is exactly what Esperanto has done and is still doing! It was not presented as a finished product. What was produced in 1887 was only a skeletal grammar plus about 960 roots. New words are constantly being added, and grammatical latencies still being discovered as it continues to spread around the world.

    By the way, the European Day of Languages is scheduled for Sept. 26 this year, and Belgium’s Journée du Bilinguisme for May 8. Are there any other such days coming up this year?

  • http://donosborn.org/ Don

    Before responding I’d like to mention that IMLD this year was also the formal beginning of the International Year of Languages. I have put up some webpages with links about it at http://donosborn.org/iyl/

    Interesting article and comments. I think that comparisons between language and the natural environment are tempting. Both are “free” in the sense of our not associating any cost to their use or maintenance. When scarcity arises, the “costs” and solutions associated with each are different and the analogy fails. But it is true that relatively little economic analysis has been done of the value of a particular language, or of linguistic diversity (whether in general or in a particular setting).

    In international development work in Africa, for instance, multilingual settings are often viewed as an inconvenience. Yet ignoring the mother tongues of intended development beneficiaries (or really, just leaving it up to chance and ad hoc translations when needed) has costs in terms of understanding, participation, and links with local knowledge.

    In terms of education, teaching uniquely in a second language (L2) has costs to students in terms of understanding and to communities in terms of integration of the educational experience with the local culture (and in some ways, the level of involvement of parents who don’t master the L2). Students who leave school early are in the situation of having sometimes truncated abilities in L1 (mother tongue) and partial abilities in L2, with incomplete mastery of subject matter.

    Usually the costs of translations into diverse languages for development or education are deemed too high, but the cost of not using L1′s more effectively is not estimated.

    Obviously a lot more can be said on these topics, but the main point is that while cultural and aesthetic values of languages are extolled, there are also practical and economic values.

    Thanks by the way for mentioning Bisharat.

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