Celebrate International Mother Language Day!

Two children reading book in their mother language

Celebrate International Mother Language Day!

Friday, February 21st is International Mother Language Day! Celebrated every year since 2000, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) holiday is intended to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and mother tongue-based multilingual education.

What is a Mother Language?

A mother language, also known as a mother tongue, refers to a child’s first language, the language learned in the home from older family members. Mother languages often carry cultural values and heritage and are an essential part of an ethnic community.

History of the Day

The idea to celebrate International Mother Language Day was the initiative of Bangladesh, adopted by UNESCO in 1999.

When Pakistan was established in 1947, it had two geographically separate parts: East Pakistan (currently known as Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (currently known as Pakistan). The two areas, separated by India, had many cultural, religious, and linguistic differences.

The following year the then-Government of Pakistan declared Urdu to be the sole national language of Pakistan. The people of East Pakistan protested as the majority of the population spoke Bangla (also known as Bangali). 

Protests continued until years later, on February 21, 1952, when police opened fire on a student rally at the University of Dhaka, killing 5 and injuring many others. In 1955, to commemorate the tragedy, now-Bangladesh celebrated its first “Language Movement Day,” which was adopted by the 30th General Assembly of UNESCO in 1999 as International Mother Language Day.

Why it matters in 2020

Languages are powerful tools. They carry with them history, cultural intricacies, and the ability to connect speakers generations apart. Support for mother languages encourages linguistic diversity, tolerance, and multilingual education—creating an increasingly more educated and adaptable global population.

Almost half of the world’s 6000+ languages are at risk, with one disappearing from use at least every two weeks. As UNESCO states, “when languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity. Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression—valuable resources for ensuring a better future—are also lost.” 

2020 is also the 70th anniversary of UNESCO’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and its bold statement that “no discrimination can be made on the basis of language.”

International Mother Language Day is a great time to consider your own linguistic history!