Nineteen years ago, in November 1999, the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) proclaimed February 21 as the International Mother Language Day to coincide with the Language Movement Day in Bangladesh.
The genesis of this commemoration lies in the widespread protests among the Bengali-speaking majority of East Bengal against the Government of Pakistan’s language policy under which Urdu was the sole national language. These protests achieved a crescendo on February 21, 1952 with students of the University of Dhaka and other political activists defying the law. A number of students were killed and there was a continuous unrest over the next few years till Bengali was recognised as the second official language of Pakistan on February 29, 1956. February 21 has since been celebrated in Bangladesh as Language Movement Day or Shohid Dibosh (Martyrs’ Day).
Today, the world celebrates the 19th International Mother Language Day. Director General, UNESCO in her message on this occasion has reminded us that “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.”
Language is clearly an emotive issue because it is embedded in our social life. It enables us to communicate our emotions and ideas. It fosters strong group identity and fraternity. We can usually express our thoughts much better in our mother language. It has been found that children learn better, especially at the primary stage, if they are taught in their mother language.
Language is tied up with identity and, therefore, has been a contested issue. Preservation of languages has been inevitably linked to the preservation of a culture and an artistic as well as intellectual heritage. With colonisation and later, globalisation, many language groups have been feeling vulnerable. Noting that every two weeks, one of the world’s languages disappears, the United Nations General Assembly on May 16, 2007 in its resolution called upon all countries “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.” By the same resolution, the General Assembly proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of Languages, to promote unity in diversity and international understanding, through multilingualism and multiculturalism.
We live in a multicultural and multilingual world. We need to preserve this multilingual nature of our world and the best way to do that is to preserve our individual languages and further enrich them. Let me recall Mahatma Gandhiji’s words in this context:
“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
India has always believed in diversity and plurality. It has respected all other languages. However, since language and culture are intertwined, there is an absolute need to strengthen our indigenous languages including the many languages spoken by many tribal groups in our country.
As the United Nations has said, “Language is fundamental to communication of all kinds and it is communication that makes change and development possible in human society. Using or not using certain languages today can open a door, or close it, for large segments of society in many parts of the world.”
Language is the lifeline of a culture and in a way defines the larger social milieu in which a society lives.
Language plays an important role not only in communication but also in creating a bond of oneness among the people who speak the same tongue. It provides a collective identity to people and forms an essential component of cultural values. The aphorisms in a language, handed down from generation to generation, reveal the customs, practices and values. While this year’s theme is ‘Linguistic diversity and Multilingualism count for sustainable development,’ the issue that is close to my heart and which I had been advocating for quite some time was the theme in 2012 ‘Mother tongue instruction and inclusive education’.
India is a mosaic of diverse languages and cultures. While a majority of Indians speak Hindi which can be described as the lingua franca of the country, Telugu and Bengali are the other widely spoken languages in the country. But Tamil perhaps is one of the oldest languages in the world. Several other languages are spoken across the length-and-breadth of the country with each of them having a rich linguistic tradition and representing the richness of diction and dialect of that respective region.
However, what is most important is to promote the use of mother tongue. A child can grasp and understand better in his or her own mother tongue than any other language. Not only that, a child will be able to communicate and articulate her thoughts effectively in her native language. I have been emphasising the need for all State Governments to make mother tongue a compulsory subject in schools. I am glad that Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and a few other states have decided to make Telugu a compulsory subject till Intermediate from the coming academic year. I hope other States will follow suit. While making mother tongue compulsory, other languages can also be taught as part of promoting diversity, multilingualism and inclusiveness.
With about 74 per cent literacy rate in India, large-scale promotion of mother tongue is the best option to create a literate world. Imparting education in the mother tongue will go a long way in tackling this problem. If the language competency in the mother tongue is strong, a student will be able to learn other languages faster and can become a true polyglot in the present-day multicultural, globalised world.
Following the British rule, English has become a highly popular medium of instruction in educational institutions and became the link language in the country with widespread use in government offices and elsewhere. Unfortunately, many people, especially the urban educated and those coming out of elitist institutions feel it infra dig to speak or read and write in their mother tongues. This undesirable trend has to be reversed and people must feel proud to speak in their mother tongues.
World over, people not only take pride in speaking in their mother tongues but also try to propagate them. In fact, I regularly interact with foreign dignitaries who prefer to speak in their own mother tongues even though they are fluent in English. Various heads of state, for example, from Russia, France, Switzerland, China, Germany and Iran used their national languages. This is simply due to the fact that they take pride in their own languages and see language as an assertion of national identity.
Let me greet you all on the occasion of International Mother Language Day today and urge all citizens in our country to learn the mother languages well and also become fluent in as many languages of the world as they can. Let us strengthen our linguistic and cultural roots by making our children learn the mother language first and gradually introduce them to other languages. We need to understand that the multilingual and multicultural world will be possible only by strengthening individual mother languages.
Each tree in this huge orchard of world languages must have strong roots and beautiful flowers and fruits. We need to have an educational system that incorporates mother languages, a publishing industry that encourages Indian language publication, and an internet regime that allows communication and transmission of knowledge in diverse Indian languages. Individuality and plurality can and must go hand in hand. That has been the essential Indian vision. It is the same vision that can enable us to be true Indians as well as global citizens at the same time.