Mojibur Doftori: International Mother Language Day

International Mother Language Day first initiated by UNESCO in 1999, has been observed throughout the world on February 21 every year since 2000. It signifies and promotes the importance of linguistic and cultural diversity as well as multilingualism throughout the world.

On the day in 1952, students of East Bengal, which later took the name of East Pakistan, brought out procession in Dhaka to press forward their demand for the recognition of Bangla, one of the two national languages of Pakistan. A number of students were gunned down by police. The deaths provoked civil unrest. The Bengalis, the majority ethnic group of eastern wing of Pakistan, could not be silenced. The tragic event kindled their cultural awareness as a linguistic group that had been suppressed for centuries under Turco-Mongol and British imperial rules. The movement did not stop there. The government of Pakistan accepted Bangla as an official language of the country in 1956 together with Urdu, the lingua franca of a small minority of mainly urban-based Muslim elites who claimed their ancestries outside the sub-continent. It was an initial victory for a secular linguistic movement that falsified the conceptual muddle that Muslims of Pakistan were a homogenous community.

Bangladesh earned its independence from Pakistan in 1971 through a bloody war with the active support of India. It became a secular progressive state. It also falsified the regressive notion of religious nationalism of Pakistan. On early morning of the Day every year, millions of Bangladeshis go to Shaheed Minars, the language martyrs’ monuments, throughout the country barefoot to pay love and respect to the supreme sacrifices of the sons of the soil. Today, the Pakistan suffers from a similar linguistic and democratic dilemma as it was in 1952. Urdu, the mother tongue of only 8 per cent people of the country, remains the national language by bypassing the major provincial languages of Punjabi, Pashto, Sindhi, Balochi and others in the name of upholding the country’s Islamic heritage.

Bangladesh has gone through many political upheavals since its independence 45 years ago. The country emerged from the shadow of Soviet block to Western influence after political assassinations of 1975 and military rules. The country came under democratic rule since 1991 after overthrowing a military regime through a student-led mass uprising in December 1990. But institutions of representative democracy remain weak in the land due poor working relations between the two major political parties. Though long known for its natural disasters and recently for attacks of Islamic fundamentalist groups on its secular bloggers and writers, Bangladesh has succeed in creating a successful microcredit model, whose creators were awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. The country has been showing an impressive GDP growth of average 6 per cent since 2001. But what all those have to do with the International Mother Language Day? Here are the symbolic cultural significance of the Day to the country and to the rest of the world.

Mother tongue is one of the most powerful tools for persevering and enriching one’s cultural heritage. European countries emerged as nation-states and well-functioning representative democratic institutions because of their strong linguistic and cultural identities. Situated between Russia and Sweden, two powerful neighbours, Finland emerged as a model Western nation and welfare state because it retained its linguistic and cultural heritages. Many Asian and African countries gained their independence from colonial powers in 1960s and 1970s through using their cultural identities, were Mother Language often played a central role in national identity formation. Education through the use of children’s mother tongue plays a key role in children’s positive learning experience. That is why the theme of the 2016 UNESCO International Mother Language Day highlights the importance of conducting primary education through children’s mother language to ensure relevance and effectiveness. From practical point of view, it promotes linguistic and cultural inclusion, tolerance and space for dialogue. It opens up what Brazilian educator Paulo Freire termed “opportunities for hope” for disadvantaged groups.

From the perspective of an interconnected and interdependent world, the Day has historical significance not only for millions of Bangladeshis, but also the broader humanity. In February 2016, we’re witnessing an increasingly uncertain and insecure world. There is wealth gap within and between nations, militant Islamic radicalism is on the rise defying borders, there is a serious challenge of civil war and state failure particularly in the Middle East. Many parts of Europe have been witnessing the rise of xenophobia in the context of European migration or refugee crisis. Russian annexation of Crimea echoes the fear of a new Cold War between Russia and Western countries. Those also remind us the importance of building bridges across cultural boundaries.

In many parts of the world, social studies curricula of schools often fail to rise above parochial religious, ethnic or national identities. Moreover, national governments often fail to build up their national education system in primary level in the place of parallel public, private, elite, charity and religious schools. Different sets and standards of education inculcate different class and ideological orientations and create social and cultural divisions and conflicts from the very beginning. Many of the world’s conflicts today are the direct and indirect results of general educational anomalies and particularly lack of opportunities for multilingual and multicultural education. The spirit of the International Mother Language Day provides the world a non-violent means for building pluralist communities, societies and nations across religious, ethnic, linguistic and other divides. It promotes inclusion and strengthens unity and cohesion.


MR_DoftoriThe writer is Doctor of Social Sciences and an expert in education and international development. Mojibur Doftori used to work as a Dhaka University Reporter for a Bangladeshi news magazine. He is a member of Finnish PEN and currently working on his first fictional book.

Johanna Sillanpää