“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
The term “mother tongue” refers to a person’s native language — that is, a language learned from birth. The term denotes not only the language one learns from one’s mother, but also the speaker’s dominant and home language.
The first language of a child is part of that child’s personal, social and cultural identity. Another impact of the first language is that it brings about the reflection and learning of successful social patterns of acting and speaking. Learning to speak in the mother tongue is very important for a person’s overall development. Being fluent in the mother tongue, which is also known as the native language, benefits the person in many ways. It connects him to his culture, ensures better cognitive development, and aids in the learning of other languages.
International Mother Language Day is a worldwide annual observance held on 21 February to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote multilingualism. Mother Language Day is part of a broader initiative to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world.
The history of the International Mother Language Day dates back to the partition of India. During the partition of India in 1947, the Bengal province was divided as the western part became Pakistan and the eastern part became a province of Pakistan known as East Pakistan. However, there was economic, cultural and lingual friction between East and West Pakistan. These tensions were apparent in 1948 when Pakistan’s government declared that Urdu was the sole national language. This sparked protests amongst the Bengali-speaking majority in East Pakistan. The government outlawed the protests but on February 21, 1952, students at the University of Dhaka and other activists organized a protest. Later that day, the police opened fire at the demonstrators and killed four students. These students’ deaths in fighting for the right to use their mother language are now remembered on International Mother Language Day. The unrest continued as Bengali speakers campaigned for the right to use their mother language. Bengali became an official language in East Pakistan on February 29, 1956. Following the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971, Bangladesh became an independent country with Bengali as its official language.
On November 17, 1999, UNESCO announced February 21 to be International Mother Language Day and it was first observed on February 21, 2000. 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 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. 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.