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International Mother Language Day in Francophone Regions

The original article in French was written jointly by Samy Boutayeb, Claire Ulrich, and Suzanne Lehn.

International Mother Language Day was celebrated worldwide on February 21, 2012. [Note: the original article in French was published on February 21.] It is an officially recognized festival or celebration which showcases languages and the efforts which have been made to preserve them.

A little known fact is that the celebration of  Mother Language Day originated in Bengladesh to honor an act of patriotism:

The date, February 21, was chosen as International Mother Language Day to commemorate the martyrs who sacrificed their lives to uphold the dignity of their Mother Language Bangla, on this very day in 1952. This was one of the rare instances in world history where people fearlessly gave up their lives for the sake of their mother language.

February 21 is a holiday in Bangladesh; though it is celebrated worldwide, it is not an official holiday elsewhere. This day was proclaimed an International Day by UNESCO in 1999.

The occasion is so meaningful in the region that it has inspired a joint celebration at the border of India and Bangladesh to strengthen the existing ties between the two countries.

India and Bangladesh will jointly observe International Mother Language Day in the no-man's-land along their borders, in an initiative to encourage individual relations between the two nations.

Africa : the rise of African languages

The theme of the Day this year is the introduction of mother languages in school instruction. With the re-awakening of local identities and cultures in Francophone Africa and elsewhere, one can see a resurgence and a renewed effort to promote African languages.

In Côte d'Ivoire, the action of the Ivorian Academy of Mother Languages resulted in the drafting of a decree [fr], concerning the teaching of mother languages.

On the island of Mauritius, social workers describe [fr] their hopes and concerns about the impact of optional courses in creole language on the long-term success and fundamental development of children:

L’introduction du kreol prévient donc les torts qu’on peut causer à un enfant en lui niant sa langue maternelle… Ces méfaits sont connus : baisse de la confiance en soi et impact négatif sur l’apprentissage des autres langues.

The introduction of creole prevents the potential detriment to a child by denying his or her mother language. These impacts  are well-known : loss of self-esteem, and a negative impact on the learning of other languages.

In Guinea, Global Voices author Abdoulaye Bah notes [fr] on his personal blog, Konakry Express:

Depuis quelques jours, le bruit courait que le gouvernement du Président Condé allait bientôt introduire l’enseignement des langues nationales dans le système d’enseignement dans le pays. C’est bien étrange que dans le monde entier, il n’y a rien de nouveau dans cette initiative. Mais le 25 avril, j’ai reçu un message d’une amie me disant:

“Le décret vient d’être signé pour créer un ministère des langues nationales et de l’alphabétisation.”

In recent days, it had been rumored that the government of President Condé would soon introduce the instruction of national languages into our country's educational system. This is quite strange, in that worldwide, there is nothing new about this initiative. But on April 25th, I received a message from a friend, saying:

“A decree has just been signed to create a Ministry of National Languages and Literacy.”

The Internet in the service of endangered languages

It is on the Internet that mother languages which are rare, endangered, or little-used because of the lack of computer keyboards adapted to their calligraphy, are progressing. For example, the project “Enduring Voices” launched by the National Geographic Society in America, which puts “talking dictionaries” online:

giving listeners across the world a chance to hear sounds which are among the least-known in human discourse.

There are eight dictionaries thus far: Tuvan, Ho, Siletz Dee-Ni, Matukar Panau, Chamacoco, Remo, Muniche and Saura.

A new alliance has been born between African languages and technology, thanks to podcasts. It is through them that a very old form of popular culture, the folk story, is being reborn in Apple Stores and in other audio-file libraries. For example, this story in the Bambara language (from Mali)  ”L'écureuil et le serpent (The Squirrel and the Snake)” recorded by another member of  the Global Voices Francophone community, Boukary Konaté:


“L”écureuil et le serpent “Conte en langue bambara (mp3)

The French version can be found here.

Other signs of a new alliance between technology and African mother languages, previously little-appreciated in business and in society: the increasingly frequent appearance of iPhone applications written in African languages, for example in Yoruba.

Young girls in Bretagne, France. By ghislainedarmor on Flickr (Creative Commons license)

Young girls in Bretagne, France. By ghislainedarmor on Flickr (Creative Commons license)

In metropolitan France, linguistic regions also have a renewed interest in their mother languages, and the city of Quimper marked the occasion with a Breton-language tour [fr] of the sights of the village. Meanwhile, the city of Parthenay celebrates “Parlanjhe“, its own regional language, or langue d'oïl.

As maybe a sign of the times,  the album Bretonne by French singer Nolwenn Leroy, sung in Breton, has sold more than one million records, without raising an eyebrow among the French. Today, in the era of mixed families and languages, it is possible to have more than one mother language, without causing jealousy. And it's all for the better.

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