For native English speakers like me, used to encountering their own language in education, at work and in the media, whether at home or abroad, it is sobering to reflect that some 40 per cent of the global population do not have access to education in a language they can speak or understand. Many millions of children are taught in a language they do not speak at home, while, for equally huge numbers of adults, the unavailability of learning programmes in their mother tongue remains an insurmountable barrier to furthering their education. As a Global Education Monitoring Report paper published to coincide with International Mother Language Day 2016 noted, these challenges are most acute in global regions where linguistic diversity is greatest, such as sub-Saharan Africa and the Pacific, and where poverty and gender inequality tend to magnify disadvantages to do with ethnicity and language. Being taught in a language that is not one’s own can have a huge negative impact on a learner’s confidence, creativity and ability to achieve. That is a huge proportion of the global population whose educational circumstances are preventing them from achieving all they might.
This is why International Mother Language Day, while perhaps not the best known of the United Nations’ international days, is, nevertheless, among the most important. Its value is reflected in the Education 2030 Framework for Action, which notes the importance of context-related bilingual and intercultural programmes of education in ensuring that ‘all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy’ (SDG Target 4.6). It is important that this is highlighted and understood. Respecting people’s cultural and linguistic rights, and paying attention to the role played by a learner’s first language as a medium of instruction and in becoming literate, is essential if countries are to meet the SDG literacy target.
Mother language and multilingual education has a wider significance, too, however, as the use of a learner’s mother language has been found to have a positive impact on learning across the board, supporting better dialogue between teacher and student, boosting participation in society and opening up access to new knowledge and understanding. It can be key in boosting a learner’s confidence and self-esteem, affirming their sense of self-identity, which, in turn, can lead to further learning and development, for the individual and for their community. In short, to foster sustainable development across the board, which is to say, across the breadth of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, learners must have access to education in their mother tongue, as well as in other languages.
It is worth reflecting briefly on why International Mother Language Day is celebrated each year on 21 February. As with other UN international days the date was chosen to mark an anniversary, in this case of the deaths of four students, in 1952, killed for campaigning to use their own mother language, Bengali, in what was then East Bengal (and is now Bangladesh). The incident demonstrates both the highly political nature of the issue and how it can lead to conflict when not dealt with in a just and respectful way.
When India was partitioned in 1947, the western part of Bengal became part of India and the eastern part a province of Pakistan known as East Bengal (later, East Pakistan). However, there were economic, cultural and language tensions between East and West Pakistan, brought to a head in 1948 when Pakistan’s government declared Urdu the sole national language. This sparked protest among the Bengali-speaking majority in East Pakistan. The government outlawed the protests but on February 21, 1952, students from the University of Dhaka and other activists organized a demonstration. Police opened fire and killed four of the students. It wasn’t until 1956 that Bengali became an official language of Pakistan. In 1971, following the Bangladesh Liberation War, Bangladesh became an independent country with Bengali its official language. International Mother Language Day is a public holiday in Bangladesh, where it is also known as Shohid Dibôsh, or Shaheed Day.
International Mother Language Day gives us an opportunity to acknowledge those who have fought for the recognition of their mother language, as well as to reflect more generally on the importance of respecting and celebrating linguistic diversity. It aims to encourage people to maintain their knowledge of their mother language in learning, while urging governments and other authorities to respect and promote cultural and linguistic diversity. This is hugely important. As Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, has observed, ‘There can be no authentic dialogue or effective international cooperation without respect for linguistic diversity, which opens up true understanding of every culture’. That is why multilingual education, the theme of IMLD 2017, is so important. The better we understand and value different languages, the better our chances of building a world that is creative, inclusive and peaceful.
Diversity, whether linguistic or ethnic, should never be a cause for exclusion. This is particularly important today when, in many parts of the world, diversity is increasingly perceived as a threat rather than an opportunity and difference is feared rather than embraced or engaged with. When governments in multilingual societies fail to acknowledge the need of groups of adults and children to be taught in their own local language (as well as others), it creates more tension, more grievance, more intolerance. Promoting mother language based bilingual/multilingual education is a way of breaking this pernicious cycle. States must recognise the importance of mother language and multilingual education in developing effective approaches to adult learning and education, cultivate approaches and resources that reinforce the diversity of their peoples, and, thus, promote more inclusive societies. If the SDG target on literacy is to become a reality and sustainable development more generally is to be encouraged and fostered, it is essential that they do.