Celebrating the Mother Tongue | Daily News

Celebrating the Mother Tongue

Our mother tongues are considered to be one of the most significant components of our identity. The language we speak outlines our culture and heritage while helping us create a powerful sense of self. February 21 (tomorrow) is International Mother Language Day, a day that should serve as a reminder of the rich variety of mother tongues across the world. However, February 21 is not only a day to cherish the language you spoke as a child. It is also a day that commemorates the struggle for language rights in many places.

The significance of February 21 dates back to 1948 when then-President Muhammad Ali Jinnah declared Pakistan’s language to be Urdu. The people in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) responded to the military administration’s enforcement of the ruling by starting what later became known as the Bangla Language Movement. On February 21, 1952, demonstrators at Dhaka University protested the ‘Urdu only policy’ and demanded that the Government recognize Bangla as one of the official languages. The police fired bullets to try and halt the protest, killing several students and activists.

In November 1999, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) officially recognized February 21 as the International Mother Language Day to raise awareness of linguistic diversity. Since then, countries around the world have started to celebrate the day. The International Mother Language Day should be taken as a reminder to fight for the preservation of Indigenous languages and cultures. The threat of many languages disappearing around the world is very real, and February 21 should serve as a reminder to preserve and strengthen the languages and associated cultural identities most threatened by powerful pressures of forced assimilation. 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.

According to Ethnologue, a website dedicated to linguistic information, there are currently 6,900 known living languages around the world. While we may not have heard of most of them, some people still use them to communicate and live by. Each of these thousands of different languages, however alien to us, is someone's mother tongue. Around 43 per cent of the 6,000-plus languages spoken around the world are endangered.

A recent The UN report explained that only a few hundred languages “have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain”, while less than a hundred are used in the digital world. International Mother Language Day recognizes that languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion, and the Sustainable Development Goals’ focus on leaving no one behind. The UN believes that 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. This year’s observance of the International Mother Language Day is a call on policymakers, educators and teachers, parents and families to scale up their commitment to multilingual education, and inclusion in education to advance education recovery in the context of COVID-19.

Sri Lanka has two vernacular languages – Sinhala and Tamil. Sri Lanka is the only country in the world where the majority of people speak Sinhala, but thanks to immigration it is now spoken widely in cities such as London, Toronto and Melbourne. Tamil is the major spoken language in Sri Lanka’s North and India’s Tamil Nadu, though the dialects are somewhat different. Again, due to the immigration of Sri Lankans and Indians to various countries, Tamil is widely spoken in many countries from Canada to Norway. It is vital that Sri Lankan families living in other countries continue to converse in the vernacular languages with their children lest they slowly fade away. Many universities around the world now offer Sinhala and Tamil for degree courses, which will help produce a new generation of scholars proficient in the two languages.

Here in Sri Lanka, it is vital to teach Sinhala to Tamil-speaking children and vice versa, with English being maintained as a link language. This will create a truly trilingual society where everyone can understand the “other”. The lack of trust and understanding between the different communities led to a conflict in this land that pitted brother against brother, sister against sister. That would not happen again if we can all understand each other and respect their traditions and cultures.

It is also necessary to offer all Governmental services in both languages. In Canada, French-speaking officials are posted even to areas where French is not spoken at all, in case a travelling French speaking Canadian coming to such an area needs any Governmental service. We should have the same attitude. All government servants need to be proficient in both languages, so that they can serve in any area of the country. Both original literary works and translations from Sinhala to Tamil and vice versa must be encouraged. All efforts must be taken to nurture the two vernacular languages so that they may last for thousands more years to come.