International Mother Language Day: February 21

MotherTongue1Today, February 21, 2014, the world celebrates the 14th annual “International Mother Tongue Day”. Each year since its inception in February 2000, the Day has had its own theme. This year the theme is Inclusive Education. UNESCO affirms that the teaching of a Mother Tongue is of great importance and is a part of the Right to Education, a key component of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

1. Examples of language-based discrimination

In the Republic of Haiti, where their Constitution defines their common language as “Creole” and the official languages as French and Creole, the societal effects of the dual-language situation in Haiti has historically led to socioeconomic clash between the rich and the poor.

While the rich and the poor speak Creole in their respective social groups, the rich and the poor tend to communicate towards one another in French .

Many Haitians and sociologists who study Haiti believe that the reason behind this is because the rich wish to create an educational separation between themselves and the poor; on the other hand, the poor, tend to speak French to the rich to prove that they are not ignorant. (For more information on the French/Creole Debate, please click here.)

To an extent the same happens in many African nations that have been previously colonized by the West. For example, in Cameroon, the official languages are English and French while the 247 native languages are not considered in their constitution. Additionally, Cameroon does not have any national programs to promote the teaching and learning of a child’s mother tongue. In fact, in many cases, Cameroonians speak to each other in English or French to show their educational superiority to those that only speak a native language.

This sort of scenario causes Cameroonian parents to make the decision of whether or not to teach their native language to their children. (For more information about the Language Debate in Cameroon, please click here.)

2. Are Multi-language nations doing enough to preserve their rich culture and history?


UNESCO has put forward a sizable effort in promoting the idea of mother tongue inclusion in education; it has even created an “Advocacy Kit for Promoting Multi-Language Education: Including the Excluded”. In the meantime, however it is not clear whether member nations are giving much attention to the idea.

3. The Importance of saving languages

According to Judith Aissen, a linguistics professor at UC Santa Cruz, “People are abandoning their native languages in favor of globally dominant tongues such as English, Spanish, Arabic, or Mandarin Chinese”.

Professor Aissen also mentions that, ““When a language dies, it takes with it a vast array of knowledge–the stories of plants and their medicinal uses, songs, history, art, culture, and the very identity of the people–which is embedded in their language”.

According to Marc Ettlinger, PhD, Linguistics, at UC Berkeley, saving languages maintains cultural and linguistic information, and cultural identity. (Read more here.)

Meanwhile, Dr. Ettlinger argues that the bilingualism has cognitive benefits such as getting “Alzheimer’s later in life…better ability to block out irrelevant stimulus and are better at task management-type skills”.

Questions for the Reader

What languages do you speak? Do you find it important to teach your language?

How does your language impact the world? What teachings come from your culture?


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