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Expert comment: International Mother Language Day

0006 Dr Salman Al-Azami Tuesday 21 February 2017

As the global community recognises International Mother Language Day, Senior Lecturer in English Language Dr Salman Al-Azami claims mother-tongue education is a basic human right.

Today, 21st February is the International Mother Language Day declared by UNESCO in 1999 to promote multilingualism and to recognise the importance of mother tongue of every human being on this planet. It comes at a time when the world is witnessing language death at an unprecedented level. Almost half of the world’s almost 7,000 languages are likely to die by the end of this century, which means that half the world’s culture and heritage will cease to exist within two generations. This is a scary thought for linguists like me who passionately believe that preservation of languages is an integral part of human existence.

It is important to revisit the history of this day, which led to people dying for their language rights. Pakistan and India became independent from British rule in 1947 based on a two-nations theory with the Muslim majority areas falling under Pakistan and the Hindu majority areas under India. After the establishment of Pakistan, the ruling elites - almost entirely based in West Pakistan (now Pakistan) - single-handedly decided to make Urdu the only official language of the new country, whereas the majority of the population living in East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh) could not speak Urdu as Bangla was their main language. Urdu was, and still is, a minority language in Pakistan with less than 8 per cent speaking it as their mother tongue today. However, the ruling class refused to acknowledge East Pakistan’s linguistic right. On 21st March 1948, the founder of Pakistan Mohammad Ali Jinnah infamously declared that “Urdu and Urdu alone shall be the state language of Pakistan”.

Jinnah’s announcement sparked huge outcry among the already agitated Bengali population of the East who continued their struggle for their language. Demonstrations and processions were organized on 21st February 1952 throughout East Pakistan. The people defied a ban on demonstrations imposed by the government and police fired upon them, killing several. More were killed the following day. These activists would come to be known as the ‘martyrs’ of the language movement and a monument, the Shaheed Minar, would later be erected in their memory. Four years later, on 16th February 1956, the struggle for language rights succeeded: the National Assembly of Pakistan amended the legislation and declared both Urdu and Bangla as state languages.

This history shows that language is a basic human right and no government should ignore the importance of people’s mother tongue. The 2017 theme of the International Mother Language Day is “Towards Sustainable Futures through Multilingual Education”. Multilingual education takes place in many parts of the world, but in an Anglophone country like the UK, it is woefully inadequate. Foreign language teaching is ineffective and unsuccessful in British schools and research shows that ethnic minority children are rapidly losing competence in their mother tongue. Apart from Welsh in Wales, no other mother tongue has any significant role in British education system.

Academic research overwhelmingly prove that allowing children to be educated in their mother tongue has many cognitive and social benefits. It is disheartening that instead of providing support to enable majority monolingual English speakers in this country to become multilingual, the education system in Britain is rather contributing towards multilingual children losing their multilingual competence.

Mother tongue education is a basic human right, which the international community is yet to recognise. Efforts by linguists towards a ‘Universal Declaration of Linguistic Rights’ have not yet been successful. The UK government have little or no policy towards supporting the rights of linguistic minorities. On this significant day, we hope that our government will rethink their approach to language education and take effective steps towards multilingual education in this country. Supporting mother tongue education to ensure that ethnic minority children do not lose competence in their heritage language can be an important step in that direction. 

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