Celebrating International Mother Language Day on 21 February

Procession march held on 21 February 1952 in Dhaka / Wikimedia Commons

“A language is far more than a means of communication; it is the very condition of our humanity. Our values, our beliefs and our identity are embedded within it. It is through language that we transmit our experiences, our traditions and our knowledge. The diversity of languages reflects the incontestable wealth of our imaginations and ways of life.” So explained UNESCO’s Director-General Audrey Azoulay three years ago on February 21: International Mother Language Day.

What follows is a brief history of the UNESCO international day that was inaugurated in 1952 to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and to promote multilingualism.

The Dominion of Pakistan was formed after the separation of the Indian subcontinent in 1947, once the British had left; it was composed of various ethnic and linguistic groups. The following year, the dominion’s government decreed that Urdu would become the sole national language, sparking extensive protests among the Bengali-speaking majority of East Bengal (now known as Bangladesh). Thus the Bengali Language Movement was born, advocating for its recognition as an official language to allow its use in government, media, on currency and stamps, as a medium of education, and to maintain its writing in the Bengali script. The movement reached a climax on 21 February 1952 when protests erupted, organized by students of the University of Dhaka and other activists, and several demonstrators died at the hands of the police that day. Widespread civil unrest followed, and eventually, after years of conflict, the government relented and granted official status to the Bengali language in 1956.

As a tribute to the Bengali movement and the fateful events of 1952, 21 February was declared to be the International Mother Language Day by UNESCO in 1999. Proclaiming it as a day to observe and celebrate indigenous languages across the globe, UNESCO’s aim is to sustain and develop the mother tongue or the first language, and to safeguard the precious heritage of world languages. It has been observed throughout the world since 21 February 2000.

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