Being multilingual

Today is International Mother Language Day!

Today is a day where we all those who are “involved in multilingualism, whether personally or professionally, should stop and consider where they can make a difference”, like Eowyn Crisfield suggests in her post about International Mother Language Day  today.

When I decided to write a post about this more than a week ago, I started looking for articles in newspapers all around Europe… Unfortunately I didn’t find any information about celebrations or activities, not even in international schools.


Since 2000 the International Mother Language Day is (apparently) celebrated worldwide on the 21 February in remembrance of the 21 February 1952, when “students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bengali, as one of the two national languages of the then Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka”.

The Mother Language Day was proclamed on 17 November 1999 by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). On the 16th of May 2007, the United Nations General Assembly called upon Member States “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world”.

Languages ensure access to knowledge and permit its transmission and its plurality. Local languages are perfectly capable to transmit the most scientific knowledge in mathematics, physics, technology etc., therefore, recognizing these languages opens “the door to a great deal of often overlooked traditional scientific knowledge to enrich our overal knowledge base… Excluding languages means excluding those who speak them from their fundamental human right to scientific knowledge“.

Languages shape minds in the broadest sense. They help building global citizenships. Intercultural understanding is only possible through language and dialogue. “In today’s world, the norm is to use at least three languages, including one local language, one language of wider communication and one international language to communicate at both the local and global levels. – Linguistic and cultural diversity are our best chance for the future: for creativity, innovation and inclusion”.

Speaking one’s motherlanguage is still not something we all can take for granted, especially in places where local mother tongues are threatened by more dominant languages.

The following video was produced by the UNESCO Liaison Office in New York in 2010, on the occasion of the International Mother Language Day, to raise awareness on the importance on languages today.


“Linguistic diversity is under threat, more than the half of the 7000 languages spoken in the world may die out over the next few generations. This loss not only erodes individual communities and cultures, but more broadly the very make up (?) of our society” (Irina Bokova UNESCO Director General (0:00-0:37)

“We focus on multilingualism as a way to preserve our valuable linguistic inheritance” (1:22)

“If languages do not exist, cultures disappear” (1:26)

“Part of our identity is the language that we speak” (1:41)

 “Children who learn their mother language do better in school.Literacy progress in mother languages bring learners the self confidence that they need to participate in their communities and make informed choices” (2:30-38).

96 per cent of these languages are spoken by a mere 4 per cent of the world’s population. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given pride of place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world.

“Less than a quarter of all languages in the world are used in educational and cyber space. This is why we have to assist governments in both safeguarding linguistic diversity and promoting multilingual competenes” Irina Bokova UNESCO Director General (4:08-4:23).

Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

—from the United Nations International Mother Language Day microsite

I really hope that next year, on the 21 February we will find plenty of activities and articles, interviews about this day, that companies and schools all around the world will celebrate linguistic diversity and multilingual education.

Please read how local language is the key to effective learning.

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3 replies »

  1. Ekushe February – as it is known in Bangladesh, is well-remembered every year for its martyrs. I think most Bangladeshis would like to see the world take greater note of this day to learn from the struggle they went through.

    • Yes, Ken, I think there should be done more. I was surprised not to see anything happening in the schools here – we have many international schools with so many people talking “minority” languages and I don’t understand why nobody is initiating this here. Will try to find out and see what we can do. I would really like to know where this day is actually celebrated and how.

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