21 February 2010: International Mother Language Day

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Dr. Eugene D’Souza, Moodubelle

21 February 2010: 21st February has been celebrated as the International Mother Language Day since 2000. This day has been celebrated every year on the direction of the General Conference of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), a specialised agency of the United Nations Organization (UNO) in November 1999. The first International Mother Language Day was celebrated on 21st February 2000 and this year (2010) will be the eleventh year of the celebration. This year’s theme is “International Year for the Rapprochement of Cultures.”

International Mother Language Day monument, Ashfield, Sydney, Australia, unveiling ceremony-19th February 2006.

Mother language also known as the mother tongue is the language that a human being learns from infancy. This language is also known as the first language or the native language of that particular person which becomes the basis for the sociolinguistic identity of that person. The term mother tongue or mother language is generally used for the language that the person learns from his or her parents and other members in the family and from the neighbiourhood and eventually can interact with the community at large.

It is believed that there are more than 7000 mother languages in the world. There is an apprehension that more than 90 percent of these languages may vanish by the end of the present century due to various factors. In the present era of globalization, the ethnic languages are facing the threat of being wiped out. As people have to migrate from one place to the other in search of employment, the young immigrant children, whose families have moved to a new linguistic environment my lose in part or totally, the language that they had acquired first, the mother tongue.

Language, especially the mother language is a medium of communication within the family and society. Every language expresses the culture of society to the complete satisfaction of its members. The language an individual speaks is for him or her the most expressive and often the most beautiful of all languages. But there are also many people who prefer to speak and communicate in their second language rather than their mother tongue. They feel more comfortable in the second language because their mother tongue might be very limited and does not provide a large number of words or expressions. One can have two or more native languages, thus being a native bilingual or multilingual. The order in which these languages are learned is not necessarily the order of proficiency.

As an example, those people from Coastal Karnataka (Mangalore and Udupi Districts) can speak in at least three languages-Konkani, Tulu and Kannada. In schools and colleges, they study English as well as Hindi. Those people who had migrated to Mumbai have to study an additional regional language-Marathi or in other states such as Tamilnadu-Tamil, West Bengal-Bengali, etc. There have been a number of families who have settled down in Mumbai since long have been adopting English as their mother tongue at the expense of their ethnic or native language such as Konkani. The trend has been increasing since the recent past. However, it cannot be denied that there are still a number of families who promote Konkani as the mother language and a number of Konkani Cultural Organizations which promote Konkani language and culture.

Realising the need to preserve and promote mother languages, the UNESCO had taken up steps to observe 21st February every year as the International Mother Language Day. There is a reason for selecting 21st February for the celebration of this day.    Just before the British granted independence to India, the subcontinent was divided into two dominions-India and Pakistan in 1947. The region of Bengal was divided into two parts based on the religion that was followed by the majority of the people in both regions. Hence, the Hindu dominated West Bengal  became a part of India and the East Bengal (modern Bangla Desh)with majority of the Muslim population was assigned to Pakistan which came to be know as the East Pakistan. However, except religion, there were major disparities between West and East Pakistan in terms of language (Urdu and Bengali respectively), economy and education.

In 1948, the government of Pakistan declared that Urdu should be the national language to be followed in administration both in West and East Pakistan. This resulted in strong opposition and agitation against the imposition of Urdu on the majority of the Bengali speaking population of the East Pakistan. The Pakistani government banned agitation and used force to suppress the language agitation from the Bengali people.

On 21 February 1952, students of the Dhaka University called for a provincial strike against the imposition of Urdu. As the agitation became stronger, the  Pakistani police brutally fired on the students of the Dhaka University in spite of their peaceful agitation  in which four students- Salam, Rafique, Barkat and Zabbar were killed. Thus, Bengali nation became the first nation in the world who sacrificed their lives in favour of their mother language and the date on which these students became martyrs in fighting for the right to use their mother language is now considered as the International Mother Language Day.

The protest and unrest against the imposition of Urdu continued in East Pakistan as Bengali speaking people campaigned for the right to use their mother language. Finally, the Pakistani government was forced to yield to the popular agitation and Bengali became an official language in Pakistan on 29th February 1956. Following the liberation of Bangla Desh  from Pakistan  in 1971, Bangla Desh became an independent country with Bengali as its official language.

On International Mother Language Day the UNESCO and other UNO agencies participate in events that promote linguistic and cultural diversity. They also encourage people to maintain their knowledge of their mother language while learning and using more than one language. Governments and non-governmental organizations may use the day to announce policies to encourage language learning and support.

Shaheed Minar (Martyrs’ Monument) at Dhaka, Bangla Desh.

21st February every year is the anniversary of the martyrdom of the four students of the Dhaka University for their mother language.  People of Bangladesh gather in large numbers at the Shaheed Minar (martyr’s monument) in Dhaka, lay flowers and pay homage to the four demonstrators killed in 1952. An International Mother Language Day memorial was constructed at Ashfield Park in Sydney, Australia, on 19th February 2006.  It comprises of a block of stone erected vertically on an elevated podium. There are engravings of the Shaheed Minar and the world on the facade of the stone. There are in addition, the words "We will remember the martyrs of 21st February" in English and Bengali and words in five alphabets to symbolize mother tongues on five inhabited continents.


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Comments on this Article
Thomas, Moodubelle/ Dubai Sun, February-21-2010, 10:04
Very nice article about mother language. We all love our mother tongue konkani. Long live Konkani.
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