International Mother Language Day

If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart – Nelson Mandela


21st February 1952, around 9 am, students began gathering in the premises of University of Dhaka in defiance of Section 144 which banned public gathering. This gathering was because the then Pakistan government led by Jinnah’s successor, Governer-General Khawaja Nazimuddin staunchly defended the ‘Urdu only’ policy during a speech on 27 January 1952. Then later that month, at a meeting, the central government’s proposal of writing the Bengali language in Arabic script was vehemently opposed and the meeting’s action committee called for an all out protest on 21 February, including strikes and rallies, to prevent which the government imposed section 144 in Dhaka.

Later that morning, as armed police surrounded the campus, students gathered at the university gate attempted to break the police line. In retaliation, the police fired fired tear gas shells towards the gate to warn the students. A section of students ran into the Dhaka Medical College while others rallied towards the university premises cordoned by the police. The vice-chancellor asked police to stop firing and ordered the students to leave the area. However, the police arrested several students for violating section 144 as they attempted to leave. Enraged by the arrests, the students met around the East Bengal Legislative Assembly and blocked the legislators’ way, asking them to present their insistence at the assembly. When a group of students sought to storm into the building, police opened fire and killed a number of students, including Abdus Salam, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Sofiur Rahman Abul Barkat and Abdul Jabbar. As the news of the killings spread, disorder erupted across the city. Shops, offices and public transport were shut down and a general strike began.

Soon dissorder spread across the then East Pakistan as large processions ignored section 144 and condemned the actions of the police. During the continued protests, police actions led to the death of four more people.

Today, 21 February, which is a public holiday in Bangladesh is also called State Language Day or Language Martyrs’ Day which was also proclaimed by the United Nations in November 1999 as International Mother Tongue Language Day. In Bangladesh, on this day, people visit the Shaheed Minar, a solemn and symbolic structure erected at the location of the massacre in memory of the language movement which led to the country’s independence.

Languages, especially what we refer to mother tongue languages, which are the ones we first learn to speak with our parents and family are one of the most powerful ways to preserve and develop culture and to promote it all across the world.

With their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, languages are of strategic importance for people and planet. Yet, due to globalization processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. 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.

At least 43% of the estimated 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world.


International Mother Language Day has been observed every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.

Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

Every two weeks a language disappears taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage.

Linguistic diversity is increasingly threatened as more and more languages disappear. Globally 40 per cent of the population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand. Nevertheless, progress is being made in mother tongue-based multilingual education with growing understanding of its importance, particularly in early schooling, and more commitment to its development in public life.

Multilingual and multicultural societies exist through their languages which transmit and preserve traditional knowledge and cultures in a sustainable way.

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.

The theme for the 2020 edition is “Languages without borders”. Today, make it a point to communicate in the language you were first exposed to, your Mother Tongue. And if it is a language or dialect that is in danger of becoming extinct, then all the more, you owe it to yourself and the future generations to preserve it.

Here’s an interesting Youtube video from a TEDx talk by Dr. Colleen Fitzgerald who speaks about the future of endangered languages. Do watch it!

And another TEDx talk by linguist Mandana Seyfeddinipur on why endangered languages matter.

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