Happy Mother Language day!
That’s right, 21st of February has been declared International Mother Language day by the United Nations. If you think this has nothing to do with you, hold up!
Let me break it down with a little Q&A…
Mother languages or mother tongue is also referred to as native language or home dominant language. It’s the language learned from birth.
International Mother Language Day was started by UNESCO in 1999 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. This international observance day was then formally recognised by the UN in a resolution. This year’s theme is “Linguistic Diversity and Multilingualism count for sustainable development”.
Local languages play an important role in promoting sustainable futures – they transmit cultures, values and traditional knowledge. It’s through the mother tongue that essential skills like reading, writing and numeracy are best acquired. It stands to reason that learning in the early years in one’s mother tongue improves future prospects. In fact, starting a child’s learning journey in a multilingual environment that features their mother tongue, will build a strong foundation for their learning. The children feel empowered, which will support academic achievement, and the learning of other languages, including national and international languages.
A Gin and Tonic please
Yes, language enables you to roll into a trendy bar (once a year if you’re a lucky mama) and ask for a craft gin. Ah, but it enables so much more.
Languages are vehicles of our heritage – locally and globally. Any efforts to preserve and promote mother tongues will encourage linguistic diversity, multilingual education and awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions.
Ultimately the aim of International Mother Tongue Day is to inspire solidarity, tolerance and dialogue. And goodness knows how, after recent years, politically and socially speaking, we need all three!
International Mother Tongue Day also supports Goal 4 of the Sustainable Development Goals to “ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of the adults both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy”.
Errr… What are these Goals you speak of?
Not many people know this, but the SDGs are a thing. In 2015, under the patronage of the UN, 193 countries agreed to work together to end poverty, hunger and inequality. The agenda consists of 17 Sustainable Development Goals, aka Global Goals, with eyes set in 2030. All signatories support the agenda and actively develop policy to meet those global goals.
Remember, we are all connected. If people are not doing well in Sri Lanka, Tonga or Venezuela, then sooner or later, WE will not be ok. If it’s the climate, it will affect us with abnormal destructive weather. The economy? The next day or a few months down the line, you bet its effects will make their way to us. If languages and cultural references are lost, we’ll all be poorer for it. If children miss out on literacy and a future and are not able to fully participate in society and the economy, we all lose.
Poverty elsewhere isn’t ‘not our business’. It’s a shame. Letting languages and history die, is also a shame.
Ok, ok, I get it… but what’s the issue, why does this need its own ‘day’?
If there wasn’t a day, you probably wouldn’t be reading this, and it would not be in many people’s radar.
In 2015 there were 7102 languages, currently there are 7099. According to the UN (http://www.un.org/en/events/motherlanguageday/ ):
- more than 50% of these languages are likely to die out within a few generations
- 96% are spoken by a mere 4% of the world’s population
- less than a hundred are used in the digital world
Did you know… Most languages in the world are spoken by less than 10,000 people. Cornish features in the ‘endangered languages’ list?
You mean, languages actually ‘die’?!
Yep that’s right. They die because they are not used, and this is due to a number of reasons, the mains ones being:
- People moving to big metropolis, where English or another official language is spoken, leaving behind their mother tongue.
- The prevalence of English as lingua franca means that parents around the world, wishing professional success for their children, prioritise this language above anything else
- Other national languages being declared official languages leaving very little support for other local languages, which eventually die out
So, what can I do to support the day and its theme?
- Be tolerant and supportive of others who speak other languages
- Learn another language. Live it. Enjoy it and all the opportunities it opens up for you
- Expose your child to other languages from an early age. The earlier children are expose to it and learn a new language, the easier it becomes to learn languages in later life, not to mention the doors of the mind that naturally open when introduced to a new language and culture.
When my children were babies and we were in playgroup, public transport, etc, I spoke English rather than my mother tongue to them. Like many others in the same position, I did it because I wanted to be polite, not alienate others or isolate ourselves. We wanted to socialise, make friends and, also, not to be targeted by any xenophobes we might encounter. I wish I had felt encouraged and empowered to speak my mother tongue. My children would probably be a lot more fluent in it now. And don’t even get me started on identity…
If you’re not convinced about why promoting linguistic diversity and even learning new languages is a good thing for your children and even for yourself…
The advantages for the individual and society are many fold and go beyond linguistic knowledge and being able to say “a croissant s’il vous plait” or “una birra por favor?”. Benefits include:
- The developed cognitive flexibility that comes from learning more than a language enhances thinking and problem-solving skills
- Better able to deal with distractions
- Language proficiency and greater vocabulary in both languages
- Better listening skills
- Learn future languages more quickly
One of my favourites is, expanding one’s own horizons. Learning a new language usually brings with it understanding of a new culture. This in turn fosters a better understanding and appreciation of ‘the other’, challenging racism, xenophobia and intolerance.
The UK government realised the benefits of learning other languages and in 2014 introduced compulsory language learning in primary schools.
And it’s trendy!
Language classes for babies have grown exponentially in recent years. Some people do it because they want to give their sprogs a leg up in life. The good thing is, once you learn a language, you learn a new way of thinking.
“Language is the key to communication. It can provide bridges to new opportunities or build barriers to equality. It connects and disconnects. It creates unity and can cause conflict. Language is many things, but it is rarely simple”. (ref http://www.unescobkk.org/fileadmin/user_upload/library/edocuments/MTB-MLE_23_Oct.pdf
Happy Mother Tongue Day! Let’s celebrate languages, multiculturalism and tolerance.
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