Everything can change, but not the language that we carry inside us, like a world more exclusive and final than one’s mother’s womb.’
— Italo Calvino (1923-85), Cuban Writer, Essayist, Journalist
ACROSS several thousand years, language has helped to shape an important part of the socio-cultural individuality of individuals (Just a suggestion, I think, this sentence should read,…has helped to shape an important part of the socio-cultural individuality of man). Our languages moulded history in more ways than one to highlight an inseparable connection between an identity of a person and her/his relation to her/his roots and motherland or place of origin. The beginning of this magnificent journey can be traced back to almost 1.75 million years ago: when a brilliant breakthrough helped to generate small steps to take final giant leap years later. The human ancestors — also referred to as Hominids — accomplished the art of making stone tools (i.e. hand axes, called Acheulian tools). And, around the same time, according to latest research, they also started to talk.
The tool-making process required planning and precision to use it within the vicinities of others. The life of early man started to change and gradually evolved to incorporate the activity of language as a significant aspect of cultural symbolism in the years to come. As human migration diversified across different habitations, languages also started to develop through their own unique formulations, ideas and ideologies. With each regional variation within language imparting a sense of uniqueness, history witnessed the myriad miracles of the first language that a person learns in close proximity with the mother — the mother language. There are numerous examples across histories that establish the significant influence of the mother language: leading to convey a sense of belongingness (i.e. nationalism) and also imparting a shape to geographical identities. Thus, languages have not only helped to shape history, but created a space to formulate an identity of its own through the essence of the ‘mother language’, often commonly referred to as the ‘mother tongue’.
On November 17, 1999, honouring this quintessential element of the gift and the love for the mother language, UNESCO proclaimed the 21st of February to be celebrated as the International Mother Language Day. The day as such was first celebrated in 2000. The formal initiation was witnessed a few years later on February 2008 through the formal celebration of the International Year of Languages implementing a UNESCO Resolution. This also re-affirmed the need to achieve full parity among the six official languages listed on United Nations websites, gave proper significance to linguistic diversity (in the context of cultural diversity), multilingualism among other issues of concern. The resolution also discussed concerns on language within the United Nations itself.
Today, it does not stand merely as a symbolism of a particular geographical area, but incorporates a key message to preserve our identities in a global village.
The story behind the observation dates several decades back to the Language Movement of 1952 in Bangladesh. This witnessed the loss of ‘language-martyr’ students of Dhaka University who took to the streets in Dhaka asking for the official use of their mother language Bangla, in Bangladesh. The Day since then marks an important event and a pivotal national celebration across Bangladesh with millions of people paying homage at the Shaheed Minar (martyr’s monument) to-date. As much as the occasion is a sombre one, in a revered gesture, the Day is also marked with creative festivity and gaiety, manifest in various social service for instance. The various events celebrate the Bangla language and Bangladesh’s culture.
Transformed now to an international event and universal cause (i.e. of celebrating the magnificent diversity of languages and linguistic heritage), the celebrations are quietly travelling to other lands and societies beyond Bangladesh who have had their contribution towards the same. The Linguapax Institute, in Barcelona, Spain, aims to preserve and promote linguistic diversity globally. Every year, the Institute presents the Linguapax Prize on International Mother Language Day which is presented for outstanding work in linguistic diversity or multi-lingual education. Seminars and musical performances across the city of Kolkata in the state of West Bengal in India also mark and celebrate the occasion and honours the sacrifices made. Stepping out of conventional confines of diplomacy, Bangladesh’s High Commission in Colombo contributed towards the international celebration sacredly connecting the key symbols to the principal ideology of International Mother Language Day. In 2017, the Bangladesh Envoy to Sri Lanka brought leaders-students-toddlers from local communities in a central park through a range of creative events attempting to underscoring the socio-cultural ethos of the Day and connecting the same with the local masses to spread awareness about the importance of the mother language. Projecting the universal ‘language of music’, artistes (students) from the University of Visual and Performing Arts, Colombo rendered their Bangla, Singhala and Tamil patriotic songs in instruments in the lush greens of the Park. The enchanting touch of letters expressed a power of bond through an innovative effort. At the same time, people from all walks of life were left in liberty to pick up brush and colour-of-choice and paint ‘letters’ (in respective mother language) over huge empty canvasses. Speaker of Sri Lankan Parliament to foreign Envoys and ordinary people left their indelible marks. Eventually emerged five pieces of colourful public art embodying such diverse emotions-moods-imagination in colours and shades reflecting respect and regard for various linguistic tradition and heritage. The connectivity of the occasion to the revered sacrifice of language-martyrs towards preservation of mother language was also eminently captured through a voluntary blood donation camp in the Park: a total of 137 bags of blood were collected, aided by the Sri Lankan Scouts. Collected blood were donated to the (Sri Lankan) National Blood Bank in support of the under-privileged local people who may be in need of.
These are just illustrative ways to highlight the power of language as a unifying factor, not a distinguishing challenge. Every pluralist society has to live up to that challenge with creative portrayal of the creative diversity of languages and linguistic traditions and heritage. We need to pick up from the path that Bangla language and Bangladesh laid and nurtured decades since. The occasion of the International Mother Language Day helps to encourage people to interact at every possible level at a more lucid scale the world over.
UNESCO celebrated IMLD 2017 on the theme ‘Towards Sustainable Futures through Multilingual Education’. The emphasis was given towards education and learning based on the mother tongue. This encouraged attempts to promote the benevolent cause of education the world over. At the very Montessori level, recent research have also prompted many countries to adopt the Mother Language to be the principal and the first language for a child to pick up his/her learning within a school framework. For instance, Gambia, Haiti, Eritrea, South Sudan have embraced mother tongue education as an important tool for children in the early years of schooling. The results have been exciting. This has proved to be more effective than making a child learn through a foreign language in the very early years. That indeed comes along what the Sustainable Development Goal also emphasised ie in augmenting early childhood education.
It has also been observed that children who learn to read in their mother tongue can very effectively transfer the learning skills to a second language a few years down the road. Interestingly enough, such an example of bi-lingual education also utilises the help of the mother tongue effectively as it helps the second language to benefit from the mother tongue and thus the learning process shares a symbiotic relationship. Such effective blending of the mother tongue into the mainstream or often the official language of a region also encourages learning; and in several other countries, the effective use and implementation of such learning through bi-lingual education have been aptly demonstrated eg notably in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, China, Ethiopia, Guatemala, the Philippines, South Africa, Mali, Peru, the Papua and New Guinea, and also the United States.
A century earlier, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore had also highlighted the intrinsic need of an education system which primarily bases itself on the (local) mother language to reach out to the masses. His form of thinking was a radical departure from the prevalent surge of English-medium education system across the Indian sub-continent in those times. But, Tagore advanced his ideas and ideologies to make his mark felt, noted. Even prior to him, other pioneers in the arena of education from the region had already spoken in favour of vernacular based methods of learning (ie Bangla mother language-based education). Stalwarts like Madanmohan Tarkalankar, Vidyasagar, Devendranath Tagore stood apart. Rabindranath, along with his colleagues at Visva Bharati University, in Santiniketan, created a body of texts for students - not only as text books but for general reading as well. The presentation of the books in the Bangla mother language was meant to fill up the long-felt vacuum and also presented various topics in an interesting and engaging way to the young minds. The principle of the diligent work of Tagore focused on knowledge generation and dispensation in a way that would hold the attention of the students and also draw them towards learning.
On being born, the first interface of a child rests with the Mother. The very first encounters, expressions, words, smiles – all are constructed through the varied interactions with the mother from whom the child helps to not only build up a vocabulary, but experience the august warmth of the world and venture to seek many answers that builds up the child’s own databank within his/her mind in the process of growing up. It would be a neat tautology to explain the significance of the Mother Language which cuts across the mere limitations of being reflected in simple back and white letters, but runs deeper to create our identities, thoughts, imagination.
With the varied participation and recognition the world over, today, the International Mother Language Day offers us all a unique global space to honour the first warmth and the sacred relation of the bond between the mother, motherland (the earth) and the child.
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