Underpinning the History of International Mother Language Day

Languages play an increasingly important role in development, ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural discussion, as well as boosting cooperation and achieving high-quality education for all.International Mother Language Day highlights the power of languages and multilingualism to promote inclusiveness.

The International Mother Language Day commemorates the sad events of February 21, 1952, in Bangladesh, when four students were killed by police during a language movement protest riot.

The focus of the day is on how languages are vital to people’s well-being and may help them progress in their education and development.

Between 1858 and 1947, a chain of events accumulated, culminating in an explosion in 1952. Bangladesh was under British colonial administration at the time, which was cruel and inhumane. The Mountbatten Plan of 1947, in which the British resolved to split colonial India into two sovereign states, was the outcome of strong anti-colonial sentiments. From this point on, the issue became a lot more engrossing.

Pakistan was divided into two geographically distinct areas when it was established in 1947. East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (currently known as Pakistan). In terms of culture and language, the two parts were diametrically opposite.  India stood in the middle of the two halves, separating them.

Even though Bengali or Bangla was spoken by the majority of people in East Pakistan and West Pakistan, the Pakistani government declared Urdu to be the country’s sole national language in 1948. Because the majority of the population was from East Pakistan and their home tongue was Bangla, the people of East Pakistan revolted. They urged that, in addition to Urdu, Bangla be included as one of the national languages. Dhirendranath Dutta of East Pakistan was the first to make the demand in the Pakistan Constituent Assembly on February 23, 1948.

Pakistan’s government forbade public meetings and demonstrations in order to put an end to the protests. Massive marches and meetings were organized by University of Dhaka students with the help of the general people. Police fired fire on rallies on February 21, 1952. Hundreds of people were killed, including Abdus Salam, Abul Barkat, Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, Abdul Jabbar, and Shafiur Rahman. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event in which people gave their lives for their mother tongue. The Bengali Language Movement (also known as Bhasha Andolon) solidified Bengali nationalism and proved to be a watershed moment in the country’s quest for independence. After a nine-month violent conflict in 1971, the East Pakistan province successfully established its identity as Bangladesh, an independent state.

Bangladeshis have commemorated International Mother Language Day as one of their tragic days since then. They pay a visit to the Shaheed Minar, a memorial established in remembrance of the martyrs, and its replicas to express their grief, respect, and thanks.

Only two times in history have people given their lives for their native tongue: the Bengali Language Movement and other occurrence was on May 19, 1961, in the Indian state of Assam. Police killed 11 protestors who demanded that their mother tongue be recognized by the state. And astonishingly, it was also Bengali, the world’s seventh most populous language in terms of native speakers.

The sacrifice of the language fighters has been recognized globally. International Mother Language Day is a global yearly event conducted on February 21st to raise awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity as well as multilingualism.

The celebration of International Mother Language Day was first proposed by Bangladesh. At the 30th UNESCO General Conference in 1999, UNESCO approved Bangladesh’s plan and the United Nations General Assembly formally acknowledged it in 2002 with the passing of UN resolution 56/262. Mother Language Day is part of a larger initiative, launched by the United Nations General Assembly on May 16, 2007, to “promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world,” as stated in UN Resolution 61/266.  which also designated 2008 as the International Year of Languages.

This day is commemorated every year with a different theme, with the theme for 2022 being “Using technology for multilingual learning: Challenges and opportunities.”” Since the shutdown of schools due to COVID-19, most countries throughout the world have switched to technology-based educational approaches.

The focus of this year’s subject was on the potential of technology to enhance and expand multilingual education.

The Bengali language struggle, which began 70 years ago, is still very relevant in today’s globe, where linguistic imperialism manifests itself in many different forms. In its resolutions, the United Nations General Assembly said that the goal of International Mother Language Day is to “support the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples around the world.” This assertion asserts that several languages are in threat. Every 14 days, a language dies. Language experts anticipate that half of the world’s almost 7000 languages will be extinct by the end of this century. Language, as a foundational component of civilisation, is a unique human asset that has aided us in our progress.We lose a piece of this asset with the demise of each language. Can we afford for half of our mother tongues to vanish? Isn’t it time to take steps to preserve a language-rich future for upcoming generation?

 As stated by the United Nations, there are over 6000 languages spoken worldwide, with approximately 43% of them being endangered. In the educational system, just a few hundred languages are recognized.  Lessons, customs, oral traditions, and other inherited knowledge are no longer passed among native speakers when a language dies. As each language dies, data sources in linguistics, anthropology, prehistory, and psychology loses diversity in data sources. Woefully,  the capacity to understand the culture who spoke it is jeopardized with extinction of a language.

International Mother Language Day is extremely important because it reminds us of the necessity of preserving language and upholding its dignity. The story of sacrifice behind the celebration of International Mother Language conveys the message that it is critical to maintain languages since they are responsible for the development of a community’s culture and that it aids in the preservation of one’s culture and heritage.

Fatima Zahra Ahasan Raisa
Fatima Zahra Ahasan Raisa
Student Department of Law, University of Chittagong.