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International Mother Language Day Celebrated Around the World

Tuesday was International Mother Language Day, a worldwide holiday that celebrates and promotes linguistic diversity. The holiday was established and promoted by UNESCO starting in 2000, with the goal of supporting and protecting threatened languages. It is estimated that more than half of the languages currently spoken around the world will be around for a few more generations, at most. International Mother Language Day is a holiday for those of us who want to turn the tide back.

In honor of the holiday, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova released an official statement affirming the importance of promoting linguistic diversity around the world:

“The language of our thoughts and our emotions is our most valuable asset. Multilingualism is our ally in ensuring quality education for all, in promoting inclusion and in combating discrimination. Building genuine dialogue is premised on respect for languages. Each representation of a better life, each development goal is expressed in a language, with specific words to bring it to life and communicate it. Languages are who we are; by protecting them, we protect ourselves.”

This year, UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day observances focused on linguistic diversity in education, and on allowing children to educated in their native language first:

“Excluded population groups, such as indigenous peoples, are often those whose mother tongues are ignored by education systems. Allowing them to learn from a very early age in their mother tongue, and then in national, official or other languages, promotes equality and social inclusion.”

Celebrations were also held by local communities all across the world. For example, in Pakistan , language activists held a seminar to call for reforms in government and education that would promote linguistic diversity by “making every tongue a mother tongue.” In Bangladesh, an event was held to give 3-year-olds their first taste of the Bangla alphabet. In Armenia , top Armenian language and literature teachers were given medals by the government for their efforts to promote the Armenian language.

Closer to home, children in London celebrated International Mother Language Day and by performing plays, dances and songs from other cultures. Finally, in the tech world, Microsoft celebrated the holiday by adding the Hmong Daw language to Bing’s translation repertoire.

International Mother Language Day

The 21st February was the tenth International Mother Language Day. The day was officially named so by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO).

There are 6,000+ languages around the world and many of them are in increasing danger of becoming extinct. 2,500 languages are officially listed as endangered. According to UNESCO there are 5 levels of language strength. These are, unsafe, definitely endangered, severely endangered, critically endangered and extinct.

Worrying Statistics from the UNESCO

•    200 languages have become extinct in the last 3 generations.

•    538 languages are officially critically endangered

•    502 languages are severely endangered

•    632 languages are definitely endangered

•    607 languages are unsafe

The International Mother Language Day was set up to encourage people to take an interest in there mother tongue language. It is important that we do not let these languages become extinct.

In the UK the dominant language is English but there are many other languages which are slowly disappearing. Welsh is slowly being forgotten despite desperate efforts by the Welsh Assembly Government to increase awareness and even making it compulsory for commercial companies to have their welsh documents translated and interpretation facilities readily available.

Two old UK dialects are already extinct and have been since around the 1950’s. They are Manx (Spoken in the Isle of White) and Cornish (Spoken in Cornwall). Yola which is spoken in southern Ireland is also extinct.

International Mother Language Day is celebrated all over the world. Its objective is to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. Many countries have built monuments to help raise awareness and conserve their mother languages.

It is important that we recognise the importance of our ancestral languages and learn from older generations, keeping as many languages as possible alive.

Celebrating International Mother Language Day

Did you know that February 21st was International Mother Language Day?

UNESCO declared the day a holiday in 1999, but its roots go back much deeper into the past. According to Wikipedia, International Mother Language Day started in 1952 in what is now Bangladesh. At this time in history, Bangladesh was still part of Pakistan. Most of the people in what was then called East Pakistan spoke Bangla, but in 1948, Urdu, a language spoken primarily in West Pakistan, was declared the official language for the entire country.

On February 21, 1952, Students at University of Dhaka and Dhaka Medical College started a peaceful protest of the decision, despite the government having banned any sort of meetings and gatherings in the area. Police fired on the protesters, killing some of the students.

Since then, East Pakistan and later Bangladesh have celebrated “Language Movement Day” on February 21. In 1999, UNESCO made it an official worldwide holiday to celebrate linguistic diversity.

The holiday is celebrated with local celebrations in many communities, and at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. This year, UNESCO is holding a 2-day symposium on Translation and Cultural Mediation on February 22nd and 23rd.

The focus of the symposium will be using translation to bring together people from different cultures across the world, allowing a more balanced exchange of ideas while still promoting linguistic diversity.

In a statement promoting the event, Irina Bokova, the Director-General of UNESCO, stated that:

“Multilingualism, the learning of foreign languages and translation are three strategic axes for the language policies of tomorrow. On the occasion of this 11th International Mother Language Day, I am appealing to the international community to give the mother language, in each of these three axes, its rightful, fundamental place, in a spirit of respect and tolerance which paves the way for peace.”

Atlas

UNESCO to Release New Language Atlas

Earlier today, the AP reported on UNESCO’s release of the third edition of its Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. The atlas is available online for free, and a print version will be released in May.

The atlas maps the location and gives details about each of the 2,500 languages that linguists classify as endangered or are already extinct.

According to UNESCO, these languages will probably vanish before the end of the century if efforts are not made to preserve them now.

What languages are on the list, and where are they spoken?

Endangered languages are everywhere, actually. If you look up UK on the Atlas, you’ll see 12 languages. Four of these, Norn, Manx, Cornish and Alderney French, are already extinct. Scots and Welsh are rated as “unsafe,” while Yiddish, Romany, Irish and Scottish Gaelic show up as “definitely endangered.” Guernsey French and Jersey French are severely endangered.

The US has 191 endangered languages, mostly belonging to Native American tribes like the Menominee, which has 35 native speakers remaining. Sioux, the language of the great Native American chief Sitting Bull, is listed as “unsafe” with 25,000 speakers.

Then, there are languages like Silbo Gomero, spoken by about 1,000 people on La Gomera, one of the Canary Islands. This language is made up entirely of whistles, to help shepherds communicate over long distances on the island. However, Silbo Gomero may benefit from the efforts of Busuu.com, a language learning website based in Spain that teaches endangered languages to people all over the world.

Can the Internet help preserve this language?

In the Associated Press article referenced above, Francoise Riviere, deputy director of culture at UNESCO, said “We are trying to teach people that the language of the country from where we come is important, and what counts is being proud of one’s own language.”

Hopefully, projects like Busuu.com can help people learn to take pride in their native languages. Having people across the globe learn endangered languages like Silbo Gomero can certainly help preserve a record of the language, but what’s really important is that the people of La Gomera keep speaking it and passing along to their children.

Preserving languages isn’t just about the number of speakers-it’s also about keeping the culture of the people speaking the language intact.