Did you know that today is International Mother Language Day? Even as a card-carrying language enthusiast, I had no idea such a day existed until an international student from Bangladesh told me about it five years ago. We were working on a project together and he explained this wonderful day, which actually had its origins in the Bangladeshi people’s struggle/movement to maintain their language. I really appreciated his explanation at the time because it helped to give some substance and direction to our project, which had originally started out as a simple ‘language exchange’ activity. Take a stroll through the Wikipedia entry for an introduction to the history behind the movement.
While the Bengali Language Movement had its roots in a very charged climate of geopolitical upheaval (protesters were killed by the government of the day), many people today face a different kind of day-to-day challenge in keeping their mother tongue alive. I found a good read in my feed this morning entitled Celebrating mother language day all year long, and it touches on a few of the (sometimes subtle and sometimes not so subtle) forces that nudge people away from nurturing connections to language communities with which they have some kinship.
As I take it all in, keep going back to a paper about Linguistic Justice by Philippe Van Parijs, in which he quite eloquently describes how “the world is full of situations of asymmetric bilingualism: the members of one linguistic group learn the language of another without the latter reciprocating.”
If you had the privilege of being raised to speak a major global language, you don’t necessarily have as much pressure to learn another language; it’s usually framed as a ‘nice to have’, if you’re so inclined to pursue the interest. In North America, whenever people talk about learning languages, I far too often hear people pulling the conversation toward what a North American native English speaker will get out of learning another language. If you watch the discourse, you’ll see what I mean:”fast track your career”, “open doors”, “allow you to enter markets where [insert language here] is spoken”. It’s not that I want to say that those claims are untrue, but I’m often struck by how more there is to talk about.
The way I’ve presented it here, it seems like an abstract/idealist argument, but I think there is real magic, in speakers of mainstream languages learning and, by proxy, celebrating languages by smaller communities. It’s a magic that our cities and communities desperately need these days; International Mother Language Day seems to be a nice opportunity to remind ourselves that there are so many human and community-centred reasons for native speakers to learn other languages.
Another great blog is Richard Bennet’s “Loving Language“; he’s presently chronicling his experience learning Somali, while living a life primarily based with his family in Minnesota. (A recent post was titled “People don’t speak languages, communities do“) . I appreciate Richard’s blog on many levels because his learning style seems quite similar to mine, and he has so many valuable tools and strategies to share with the language enthusiast community. Most importantly, I wholeheartedly agree with his central message that you can be an outrageously successful language learning without even leaving your hometown, and that learning your neighbour’s language can and should be a valuable cornerstone of civic citizenship.
So there you have it— so many reasons to celebrate mother language day all year long; learn how to say hello to your neighbour in their language! Even if you don’t go any farther than that, what seems like a trivial gesture can serve to support the social cement that binds your community. I continue to be inspired by the level of English mastery that many international students achieve, so that’s my motive to keep going with my language studies.
In closing, I found another International Mother Language day video that some folks put together last year— well worth a watch!