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The Day for all languages: 21 February

©UNESCO/R.Manowalailao

©UNESCO/R.Manowalailao

18.02.2013

Language is critical - it’s through language that we can communicate meaning and develop a sense of individual and communal identity. Loss of language and culture is frequently accompanied by large human and social costs.

International Mother Language Day is marked worldwide on 21st February each year to celebrate the diversity of languages spoken across the earth.

To mark the occasion, Abdul Hakeem, Education Advisor and Coordinator of the Asia Pacific Programme of Education for All at UNESCO Bangkok, talks about the extinction of languages and suggests ways to breathe life back into languages.

Firstly, what is a mother tongue or mother language exactly?

“The term mother language or mother tongue may be applied in many ways. Sometimes, it’s used to refer to a person’s home language or first language.”

What is Mother Language Day, and why it is so important?

“It’s a day of celebrating mother tongues or mother languages. It’s all about celebrating linguistic and cultural diversity. By supporting language diversity, we can help societies to become more inclusive. Many still hold the myth that language diversity will hamper national cohesion and identity. But in many cases, linguistic diversity helps us in fostering peace and building a more inclusive society. You see, just as biodiversity is critical for nature, so too is linguistic diversity critical for sustainable development. It’s also important to highlight the fact that International Mother Language Day celebrates all languages within all countries with special attention to minority languages in the world.

“Mother Language Day celebrates all different languages with special attention to minority languages in the world.”

For us as educationalists, there is another reason this day is so important; we see mother tongue education as critical to improve learning in the early years of life. The individual builds knowledge upon what has already been taught to them at home or in their community. If you use your mother tongue in your initial years of schooling, then it is a lot easier for you to learn. What’s more, once you learn in your mother tongue, the skills are easily transferable to learn other languages as well. Alternatively, if you go to a school and you’re suddenly in an environment where you have to learn a new language or concept, it can be quite a challenge.

That’s why the emphasis on learning in the mother tongue in the early years is so important and that’s why this day is so important to us. International Mother Language Day celebrates all languages within all countries with special attention to minority languages in the world and it’s a day that we should all cherish.”

Today we know that there are over 6,000 languages in the world. As much as 50 per cent of these languages are dying, 40 per cent are endangered and 90 per cent of the world population speaks about 300 majority languages. Only 100 languages are used in the education. What can be done about this?

"Language extinction is happening because there is uneven attention and emphasis given to only certain amount of languages.”

“First, we need to understand the causes. Language extinction is happening because there is uneven attention and emphasis given to only certain number of languages. Indeed, there are many cases where people are not aware of the existence of minority languages even within their own countries! This is what we need to change. To keep a language alive, we need to use that language in school systems, administration and in whatever ways possible.”

Less than 100 languages are used in the “digital world”. When it comes to preserving the language, is technology a friend or a foe?

“Technology is a tool which can be used positively or negatively to preserve a language, but it seems that major languages dominate the cyber space. Not many resources on the web are available in minority languages yet. Thus one could argue that technology has not as yet been used to adequately support the promotion and use of minority languages. This may be the result of many factors including availability of scripts or the economic returns of investing in these languages.”

To continuously use a language is to preserve it. Are there any ways to encourage people to use their own languages?

“The first is to recognize that language is an important part of one’s identity, not just the individual but the community as well.

“To preserve a language, people should nourish that language, use it and produce materials in that language in both soft and hard copies.”

Secondly, we need to promote the idea that the community and the individual should consider the language which is close to one’s culture and identity first because that helps the person to learn a language much more quickly. Once you learn a language, you already know how to structure the language in your brain. When you do that, it becomes easier to learn another language after that. This means, if you have strong foundation in your first language(s), you will be able to learn English, Thai or other languages much more quickly than if you were to jump into other languages at the very start. That’s the evidence coming out of number of studies. It’s a good bridging system from the mother language to the major languages.

To preserve a language, people should nourish that language, use it and produce materials in that language in both soft and hard copies. Technology can’t be blamed because it’s a tool and that’s how people use it. Once we start using the language then it gets passed on to the next generation. It’s the generational usage and technology that can enhance and support this transition.”

For more information about UNESCO’s mother tongue education related programmes, contact: Kyungah Kristy Bang at k.bang@unesco.org

 

By UNESCO Bangkok