International Mother Language Day, coming up in just a few days, may not be the first holiday that comes to mind for February, but it shares an unlikely commonality with the American observances of George Washington’s and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays: all three mark a victory over intolerance.
Washington won freedoms for a country unable to tolerate the repressive regime of an empire. Lincoln saved this new country by abolishing its slavery. International Mother Language Day won official recognition for the value of a person’s mother tongue, or native language, in preserving not just linguistic but cultural heritage.
Act Globally, Speak Locally
The genesis of International Mother Language Day is tragic and deadly. On February 21, 1952, four students in Pakistan were killed while demonstrating for recognition of their native Bangla language. It would take decades for the tragedy to become the basis for something positive—the value of local languages in a global society—but in 1999 UNESCO established the International Mother Language Day, to be observed on February 21 around the world. The Linguapax Prize is presented then, in celebration of language diversity.
From One to Some
Despite the recognition that the day bestows on native languages, its advocacy goes beyond a single language. The language we learn at our mother’s knee, like the rest of the knowledge that is imparted there, is just the beginning. UNESCO, for example, supports the value of three languages: the mother tongue, the national language, and the international language in education.
The Living Monument of Books
In Ashfield Park in Sydney, Australia, a monument stands that marks International Mother Language Day. Erected on February 19, 2006, the monument features words in five alphabets, representing mother languages of five continents.
Monuments commemorate, recognition days celebrate. One program that helps to perpetuate the value of native language is a literacy initiative called Mother Tongue Books, which translates children’s books into their native tongue. Reading in this way needs no single recognition day—every page is a celebration of tolerance.