Each year on February 21st, people around the world celebrate International Mother Language Day. What is a mother tongue, and why does it matter so much? You might be surprised to learn how much this day really matters — and that people actually lost their lives fighting for their right to speak their native language.
On this day in 1952, four students were killed for campaigning to officially speak Bengali in the capital city of Dhaka, Bangladesh, which was once part of Pakistan. At the time, the only nationally recognized language was Urdu. However, the partition between East and West Pakistan caused tension and the urge for people to express their right to speak.
In 1999, the United Nations decided to honor this day in order to “promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.” It’s been celebrated every year since that time by people of many backgrounds — those who fight for language rights, people who teach foreign languages, and even individuals who work on multilingual projects or even provide services, such as website translation, software localization services, and so on.
Today, there are an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 languages spoken around the world. Half of the world’s population speaks the 13 most spoken languages, which are Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Javanese, German, Lahnda, and Telugu, while the other half speaks the rest.
So, what exactly is a mother tongue? It’s more complicated than you might think. Some define it as the language you learn first, regardless of who taught it to you. Others define it as the language in which your mother spoke to you as a child. Another definition simply equates a mother tongue with a “native language.” And, others regard it as the primary language of a person’s ethnic identity.
For example, as a South Asian American who was born and raised in America, the first language I learned was English. However, my parents spoke Hindi at home, and I picked it up quickly too. Some would refer to my mother tongue as English, while others would think it’s Hindi.
This begs the question, “Can you have more than one mother tongue?” As a child, I spoke both Hindi and English with similar frequency, but as I grew older, Hindi became less and less a part of my life, and I found myself not speaking it very often. So, can your mother tongue cease to be your mother tongue? And, is it possible to have a mother tongue that your mother didn’t speak? The definitions are not as simple or straightforward as they might seem.
My multilingual situation is a common one, throughout the world, and right here at Smartling. Many people live in a different country other than the one they were born or raised in. As a result, they often pick up a new language — or even just a new accent! They also pick up a more diverse set of cultural values in the process. Even if you do not speak your “mother tongue” as often as you used to, it’s still an important part of who you are.
International Mother Language Day highlights the fact that languages are a critical part of our cultural identity. So, we invite you to please take a moment today to reflect on the languages that shape who you are, which languages have been part of your journey, and how they will continue to be part of your life moving forward.