“Tis the season to celebrate languages!”

As part of a global initiative launched by UNESCO in 1999, February 21st is now known as International Mother Language Day. The day is meant to promote language diversity and multicultural education, in support of the education for all Millennium Development Goal.

The date is a historic reminder of the 1952 “Language Movement” rally at Dhaka University in Bangladesh, when thousands of students protested the Pakistani imposition of Urdu as the official state language.

Bangla, the spoken language of the common majority in both Bangladesh and Eastern Pakistan, was legitimized as the official language as a result of the campaign. Today, February 21st signifies an even larger language diversity movement, validating the cultural autonomy of millions globally. Limitation on the legal recognition of languages spoken by lower class populations and ethnic minorities severely restricts their access to political agency.

Language repression has been used historically as a means of curbing the autonomy and political representation of the common people. Disempowerment through language permeates the level of education received, as well. When the common mother tongue is not also the language used in schools, the number of children who can access a proper education is depleted.

Usually the colonial language, most likely English or French, stands in its place, meaning that only the children from socially elite families are advantaged by the school system. For example, in Haiti the official language used in schools is French. Adversely, only 10% of the population actually speaks French fluently, as Creole has been the spoken language of the masses since the French were ousted from the island in 1804.

The archaic tradition of speaking only French in schools renders lessons incomprehensible to most students, eventually discouraging them from attending.  Research shows that even the majority of teachers only know the bare minimum of French, and cannot teach with ease or to the best of their ability.

A primary goal of International Mother Language Day is to support multilingual efforts in schools. Multilingual education is proven to increase the general aptitude of young students, as well as ease the transition to literacy. Once the mother language is grasped, there is then increased potential for learning a second national or international language.

There are also many broader advantages of a multi-linguistic education, such as cross-cultural understanding and unity. Since diverse communities are so often characteristic within developing nations, language acceptance can facilitate an array of advantages economically and socially.

-Stefanie Doucette

Sources: Global Partnership Organization, The Boston Globe, UNESCO
Photo: Flickr