Celebrating Linguistic Diversity: International Mother Language Day

By Maria Debbarma

February 20, 2024

Every year on February 21st, the world comes together to celebrate International Mother Language Day, a day dedicated to promoting linguistic and cultural diversity. This observance, established by UNESCO in 1999, commemorates the tragic events of February 21, 1952, when students in Bangladesh courageously protested for the recognition of their mother tongue, Bengali, as one of the official languages of Pakistan. Tragically, many lost their lives in this pursuit, but their sacrifice paved the way for linguistic rights and cultural preservation worldwide. International Mother Language Day is observed every year to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

Today, there is an increasing recognition of the pivotal role languages play in various aspects of development, including the preservation of cultural diversity and fostering intercultural communication. Moreover, languages contribute significantly to enhancing cooperation, achieving universal access to quality education, fostering inclusive knowledge communities, and safeguarding cultural heritage. Additionally, they play a crucial role in mobilizing political support for leveraging the advantages of science and technology towards sustainable development efforts.

Safeguarding Language Diversity

Language acts as a medium for individuals to express their emotions, values, and worldview. It serves as a powerful tool for connecting people to their roots and enabling them to understand their cultural context better. However, the processes of globalization increasingly threaten their existence, leading to their gradual decline or complete disappearance. As languages diminish, so does the diverse tapestry of global cultural heritage. Alongside this loss, opportunities, traditions, collective memory, distinct modes of thought, and expression—essential elements for securing a brighter future—are also forfeited.

Every fortnight witnesses the extinction of a language, along with an entire cultural and intellectual legacy. Approximately 45% of the roughly 7,000 languages spoken worldwide are endangered. Merely a select few hundred languages have been integrated into educational frameworks and public discourse, with fewer than a hundred utilized in digital platforms.

Why  Mother Tongue Based Education is Essential

On annual International Mother Language Day celebrations, UNESCO has consistently highlighted the role of multilingual education based on the first language, also called mother language or home language. This is essential, particularly in elementary education, to prevent  knowledge gaps and accelerate learning and comprehension. Teaching in one’s mother tongue is essential for fostering inclusivity and ensuring high-quality education, leading to improved learning results and academic achievements, as supported by research findings. Furthermore, a multilingual educational approach rooted in the mother tongue empowers all students to fully engage in societal activities, fostering mutual understanding and respect while also playing a role in safeguarding the diverse cultural and traditional heritage embedded within every language worldwide. Multilingual and culturally diverse societies flourish when their languages are upheld as vehicles for transmitting traditional wisdom and cultural legacy.  

However, there is still a considerable distance to travel before ensuring that all students have access to education in their mother tongue. Presently, 40% of the world’s population is unable to receive education in their mother tongue, with certain regions experiencing rates surpassing 90%. The majority of pupils in the majority of countries are taught in a language other than their native dialect, which hinders their ability to learn effectively.

 The mismatch between home languages and school languages has persistently hindered education systems worldwide. For years, the exclusive use of dominant languages for teaching has been scrutinized for its detrimental effects on educational quality. This practice has not only compromised the accuracy of learning assessments but has also significantly limited learners’ future prospects in education and employment opportunities. Many scholars have highlighted that merely adopting a foreign language as the medium of instruction does not ensure effective language acquisition.

According to a study by Skutnabb-Kangas, instruction in a language that students do not speak is referred to as “submersion” since it is comparable to holding students under water without teaching them how to swim. Submersion makes both learning and teaching exceedingly challenging, especially when the language of instruction is also a second language for the teacher, compounded by ongoing challenges including low levels of teacher education, poorly planned, inadequate curriculum, and a lack of proper school facilities.

Kokborok: The Mother Tongue of Indigenous Tripuri People

The Kokborok language is the mother tongue of the Tipra indigenous people and also an official language of Tripura state. The indigenous peoples of Tripura have long cherished their Kokborok language as an integral part of their cultural heritage and identity. Rapid urbanization, migration, and the dominance of mainstream languages pose threats to its survival and made this language vulnerable. A study said that most of India’s threatened languages is that they lack a viable script. The introduction of the only one single script as the medium of education and administration has raised concerns about the erosion of indigenous languages and cultural identity. In a rapidly changing world, preserving Kokborok is crucial, it is not just about safeguarding a language; it is about celebrating linguistic diversity and honouring the cultural heritage of Kokborok speaking communities.

Mother language in Basic Literacy and Primary Schooling

Teaching bilingual content alongside basic literacy and writing skills in a student’s native language is known as mother-tongue-based bilingual education. Employing the mother tongue, particularly in the early stages of education, allows children to develop comprehensive skills while actively participating in the classroom. Linguists argue that utilizing the mother tongue in education can rapidly produce proficient readers, even among average or slower learners. This approach ensures that early childhood education is easily comprehensible, as it aligns with the language students are already familiar with. The significance of the mother tongue extends beyond childhood and plays a crucial role in an individual’s lifelong development. From infancy, it serves as the foundation for communication and verbal interactions, contributing to a strong sense of identity and belonging. Language also plays a vital role in cognitive development, with research showing that children learn best when taught in their mother tongue. Moreover, the mother tongue facilitates authentic expression of complex emotions, values, and cultural nuances, promoting cultural preservation and intergenerational transmission of traditions. When individuals maintain a strong connection to their mother tongue, they become more receptive to learning new languages and embracing diverse cultural perspectives. Emphasizing the value of mother tongues fosters inclusivity and cultural pride within multicultural societies, promoting intercultural understanding and social cohesion.

Multilanguage Education: Bridging the Gaps

India stands as a nation rich in linguistic diversity, encompassing a plethora of regional and local languages. These languages serve as vital components in shaping the cultural landscape and social structure of various regions throughout India. Acknowledging the significance of these regional and local languages is paramount to the preservation of cultural heritage, the cultivation of a collective identity, the promotion of multilingualism, and the facilitation of effective communication and inclusivity among its populace. One of the significant contributions of regional and local languages is their ability to preserve and promote the rich cultural heritage of their respective communities.

International Mother Language Day 2024 serves as a reminder to the global community that incorporating multilingual education significantly improves learning outcomes, particularly when instruction is delivered in the learner’s native language. Many rural and indigenous communities primarily communicate in their regional languages. Recognising and supporting these languages is essential for ensuring equal opportunities for all citizens. It allows individuals to participate fully in educational, economic, and social spheres, ensuring their voices are heard and their needs are met. Ultimately, recognizing, promoting, and preserving one’ mother tongues not only celebrates linguistic diversity but also empowers individuals to thrive personally, academically, and professionally.

In conclusion, the promotion of mother tongues and local languages is essential for the preservation of cultural heritage, while the adoption of a formal national language should be done in a manner that respects linguistic diversity and promotes inclusivity. On International Mother Language Day, let us celebrate the beauty and diversity of languages spoken around the world. Let us honour the memory of those who have fought for linguistic rights and continue to advocate for the preservation of endangered languages. Mother tongue education supports learning, literacy and the acquisition of additional languages. By embracing multilingual and mother tongue education, we can bridge generational divides, promote intercultural understanding, and build a more inclusive and harmonious world for future generations.

Maria Debbarma is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Science in MBB College, Agartala.

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