February 21 is observed as International Mother Language Day. It was proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November 1999. The UN General Assembly welcomed the proclamation of the day in its resolution of 2002.
The theme of the 2021 International Mother Language Day, “Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society,” recognizes that languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion, and the Sustainable Development Goals’ focus on leaving no one behind.
Today there is growing awareness that languages play a vital role in development, in ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue, but also in strengthening co-operation and attaining quality education for all, in building inclusive knowledge societies and preserving cultural heritage, and in mobilizing political will for applying the benefits of science and technology to sustainable development.
However, the irony is many languages world over are dying. Between 1950 and 2010, 230 languages went extinct, according to the UNESCO Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Today, a third of the world’s languages have fewer than 1,000 speakers left. Every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker, 50 to 90 percent of them are predicted to disappear by the next century. When humanity loses a language, we also lose the potential for greater diversity in art, music, literature, and oral traditions. Thus there is a need for preserving languages.
UNESCO believes education, based on the first language or mother tongue, must begin from the early years as early childhood care and education is the foundation of learning. The New Education Policy is in sync with this line of thinking. In a segment called ‘multi-lingualism, and power of language’, the new National Education Policy (NEP) says “wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Grade 5, but preferably till Grade 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/local language/regional language”.
Thereafter, the home/local language shall continue to be taught as a language wherever possible. This will be followed by both public and private schools.
All languages will be taught in an enjoyable and interactive style and states may enter into bilateral agreements to hire teachers from each other, the HRD Ministry said.
“The three-language learned by children will be the choices of States, regions, and of the students, so long as at least two of the three languages are native to India”.
Story behind the Mother Language Day
There is a tragic story behind the proclamation of Feb 21 as Mother Language Day. When Pakistan was created in 1947, it had two geographically separate parts: East and West Pakistan. The two parts located thousands of miles apart were very different in terms of culture and language. The only glue that bound them was religion.
In 1948, the then Government of Pakistan declared Urdu to be the sole national language of Pakistan even though Bengali or Bangle was spoken by the majority of people combining East and West Pakistan. The people of East Pakistan protested as their mother language was Bangla. They demanded Bangla also to be one of the national languages, in addition to Urdu. The demand was raised first by Dhirendranath Datta from East Pakistan on 23 February 1948, in the constituent Assembly of Pakistan.
Pakistan government did not pay any heed to the demand. Instead they outlawed public meeting and rallies. The students of the University of Dhaka and Dhaka Medical College, with the support of the general public, arranged massive rallies and meetings. On 21 and 22 February 1952, police opened fire on such rallies. At least nine students died. Hundreds were injured. This was a rare incident in history, where people sacrificed their lives for their mother tongue.
Since then people of East Pakistan observe February 21 as Bhasha Divas (Language Day).
A makeshift monument was erected at Dhaka to commemorate the ‘languge-martyrs’ on 23 February 1952 by the students. It was soon demolished on 24 February by the Pakistani police force.
The Language Movement gained momentum, and after a long struggle, Bengali gained official status in Pakistan with Urdu in 1956. To commemorate the dead, the Shaheed Minar was designed and built by Bangladeshi sculptors Hamidur Rahman in collaboration with Novera Ahmed. The construction of the monument was delayed because of the martial law and was finally completed in 1963, and stood until thd Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, when it was demolished completely. After Bangladesh gained independence later that year, it was rebuilt. It was expanded in 1983.
Bangladeshis celebrate the International Mother Language Day as one of their tragic days. Two Bangladeshi persons living in Canada wrote a letter to the then UN Gen Secretary Kofi Annan to take a step for saving the world’s languages from extinction by declaring an International Mother Language Day. Rafiq proposed the date as 21 February to commemorate the 1952 killings in Dhaka during the Language Movement.
What is Mother Language?
Delhi based socio-cultural organization Intellect, largely comprising of persons hailing from Odisha presently settled in different north Indian cities last year organized a seminar on mother language. I was one of the participants of the seminar. I raised this question: what is mother language? The language that the mother in a family speaks? What if the father and mother belong to two different linguistic communities and live at a place where none speak those languages? This is a situation- that is increasing especially in the mobile upper class.
Veteran journalist TJS George wrote in mainstream (Oct. 12, 2019): Matrubhasha (mother languge) is not necessarily the language one’s mother speaks. The language with which we grow up, the language in which we think is in effect our mother tongue. That is why vast numbers of new-generation Indians have English as their mother tongue. In a few years English-speaking new-gen Indians will become the old-gen majority in the country. This is a natural process because young people learn English to do well in life. Tamil parents settled in Delhi for life may have children who consider Hindi their mother tongue. A Kerala man who spent his working life in Hongkong sent his daughter to a Chinese-medium school. She grew up speaking Cantonese and English and became completely alien to Malayalam.
Singapore is an example of how phrases mesh with prevailing conditions rather than their literal meanings. “Mother tongue” in Singapore means the language a citizen’s ethnic group speaks whether the citizen and his mother speak it or not. “First language” is the term for English which is effectively the country’s national language. In Canada, French and English enjoy equality at the federal level. In tiny Switzerland German, French and Italian are official languages with equal status. Mature democracies behave in mature ways, making everyone feel equal.
Tail piece: The Rat Story
It was a practical session in the psychology class.
The professor showed a large cage with a male rat in it.
The rat was in the middle of the cage.
Then, the professor kept a piece of cake on one side and kept a female rat on the other side.
The male rat ran towards the cake and ate it.
Then, the professor changed the cake and replaced it with some bread.
The male rat ran towards the bread.
This experiment went on with the professor changing the food every time.
And, every time, the male rat ran towards the food item and never towards the female rat.
Professor said: This experiment shows that food is the greatest strength and attraction.
Then, one of the students from the back rows said:
“Sir, why don’t you change the female rat? This one may be his wife!”
About the Author:
Journalist turned media academician Mrinal Chatterjee lives in Dhenkanal, Odisha. Odia translation of an anthology of essays titled Mahatma Gandhi: Journalist and Editor, originally published in English is releasing by mid-January 2021.
This is the personal opinion of the author. The views expressed in this write up have nothing to do with the www.prameyanews.com
The professor stood straight up his finger pointing towards the student and said “You are a genius”