Dr M. D. Thomas
21 February is celebrated worldwide as ‘International Mother Language Day’. It could also be called ‘world mother tongue day’. This day was proclaimed so in 1999 in its General Conference, by UNESCO, that is to say, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. This celebration was launched in the year 2000.
The purpose of this observance is to promote awareness of the ‘dignity of language’ as well as linguistic and cultural diversity, crosswise the world. It is too obvious a fact that human culture is basically a question of diverse languages that help the humans to articulate their thoughts and feelings, along with experiences and aspirations, one to another.
The background of this declaration is the ‘language movement’ of the students of Dhaka University in Bangladesh, even before it became an independent nation. In the wake of Urdu being imposed as the state language, people came forward to fight for Bengali or Bangla, which was and is the national mother language of most of the citizens in Bangladesh. As a result, it could be noted that Bangladesh is the only monolingual country in South Asia, with nearly 98% of people fluent in Bengali.
The blood of the ‘language martyrs’ of the then East Pakistan, to be exact, on the 21st day of February in 1952, brings home to the world a powerful message that ‘one’s language should not be imposed upon the other’. The United Nations made this movement and victory a case in point to invite the attention of the entire world not to dare ‘violating the fundamental right of the humans to one’s own language’.
The humans are spread over the world in nearly 200 countries, speaking various languages and belonging to a variety of national cultures. People and organizations around the world celebrate this day through media posts, write ups, workshops and other events, in view of affirming the distinction of every language. The distinction of the language would mean ‘dignity of every human person and community’, too.
As we know too well, every human being is born with a language. He or she inherits it from the womb of his or her mother. And this mother tongue develops and takes shape in the lap of the mother, too. Of course, children growing up in bilingual homes could have more than one mother tongue or native language. At any rate, mother language is dear to everyone, beyond comparison, and world over. This is the eternal truth that is being celebrated today.
Again, every language in the world is the mother language of someone or other. Therefore, all the dialects and languages of the world carry with them the unique ‘dignity and identity’ that derives from the mother. That endowment should not be compromised, because a ‘mother is a mother’. For that reason, all the languages on earth are worthy of respect and ought not to be compared as superior or inferior. A ‘language is a language’, for all the humans, irrespective of the number of people speaking it.
Mother language has a primary place in the process of education. Mother Tongue is the language of heart and mind. Children are the most familiar with the home language. Therefore, children should be taught in their mother tongue, at least in the initial stage. This will facilitate the unique heritage and traditions of the family and the tribe to flow in to generations.
Learning other languages through schooling or socialization is a welcome idea, as well. Learning a language would mean learning to think and understand, along with learning to imbibe a culture and to be cultured oneself. This will broaden the horizons of the child, certainly so. This will also help children grow up as citizens who are capable of appreciating the languages and cultures of other groups. This is an effective means for promoting fellow-feeling among communities of different ideologies, traditions, cultures and nationalities, as well.
Languages, when recorded, become ‘literature’ in poetry and prose, with a range of streams of poems, songs, stories, novels, memoirs, reports, news, views and interviews. They preserve the indigenous legacy of the respective civilization. They imbibe the cultural genius of the persons and groups they come in touch with, too. Language is the door to the culture of the humans, personal and social, with a world of prospects.
In addition, ‘languages have no borders’. They travel beyond boundaries as human beings move from place to place, in search of the better. As they journey, indigenous and local languages become regional, national and even international. In other words, according to the number of people learning, speaking and writing, those languages spread and acquire a national or global stature. And so, they become mediums of human civilizations, not in just one direction, but as a two-way traffic, definitely so.
What’s more, languages are powerful vehicles of dialogue and interaction as well as of thoughts and expressions. They share and spread understanding and knowledge, good will and friendship, harmony and peace, and the like. Languages have to crisscross and cross-pollinate the perceptions, beliefs, convictions, ideas and cultures of the human world, religious and secular. Language is the most powerful medium of enriching each other, especially in the modern times, when the world has become very much a global village.
That would amount to state that the world is necessarily ‘multi-lingual’ in its fabric. It has millions of languages and dialects. Our great land India is known for its linguistic diversity and has thousands and thousands of dialects. The Indian currency, rupee or INR, has two national languages, Hindi and English, and 15 regional languages inscribed on it. The Constitution of India, in its eighth schedule, has recognized 23 languages as nationally recognized ones, as well.
Therefore, all the citizens of India have to make it a point to learn the language of the other. The North has to open up to learning the language of the South and the South, of the North. In a similar way, the East has to learn the language of the West, and the West, of the East. Languages of different countries have to be learnt, too, in view of acquiring a larger human stature through social interaction and research. I believe, this is the right way of living and promoting solidarity, integration and harmony as citizens of one nation and of one world society.
The ‘International Mother Language Day’ of UNESCO is a golden opportunity to consider all languages of the world as a ‘divine gift to the humans’ and the ‘shared cultural heritage of the human society’, starting with one’s own mother language. Doing so is a sure way of developing a sense of esteem and respect for all the languages of the world, along with an interest and commitment to learn at least some of them. Such a positive outlook to language will certainly contribute to growing in the larger and higher dimensions of life, as truly civilized human beings, and thus to making a more harmonious society for one and all.
The author is Director, Institute of Harmony and Peace Studies, New Delhi.