Bengali and International Mother Language Day : The Tribune India

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Bengali and International Mother Language Day

Our richness of understanding depends on the survival of our various languages, the cultures they are part of, and the worlds and knowledge systems they embody

Bengali and International Mother Language Day

Photo for representational purpose only. - iStock file photo



GJV Prasad

‘ARE we celebrating Sanskrit Day today?’ asked someone on one of the WhatsApp groups. I didn’t know that, I replied. ‘Today (February 21) is something called International Mother Language Day,’ she said. ‘And Sanskrit is the mother of all languages, whatever westerners and you Tamilians may say. Sanskrit is the mother language! So, today is Sanskrit Day!’

This got me thinking. Why is it called the Mother Language Day instead of Mother Tongue Day? Mother language seems like a literal translation into English from the many languages where they are called just that — like matrubhasha, thaaimozhi, langue maternelle, etc. But English has ‘mother tongue’, and ‘mother language’ sounds like ‘mother ship’! No wonder my WhatsApp group friend misunderstood what it meant and began to argue for Sanskrit, thinking the westerners may be celebrating Greek or Latin!

Obviously, the friend doesn’t know that the day originated from the subcontinent! It is the day that commemorates the Bengal Language Movement, the day that memorialises the martyrdom of many students shot dead by the police when they were protesting for the inclusion of Bengali as the co-official language of Pakistan, as opposed to Urdu being the only official language. This fight for Bengali found resonance in India and among Bengalis in many states in India. The mother language that gave rise to this celebration of International Mother Language Day is actually Bengali!

This day was proclaimed by UNESCO in its General Conference in 1999, accepting a proposal by Bangladesh. The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution to celebrate the International Mother Language Day in 2002. Each year the celebration has a theme associated with it. This year, it is ‘Multilingual education — a pillar of learning and intergenerational learning’. India has always realised the need for inclusive education in terms of languages, even if it hasn’t been able to implement this successfully. This theme highlights for all nations of the world the need to ensure the survival of all languages — by delivering education in the mother tongues of the learners, while subsequently teaching them other languages as well.

Our attempts at implementing the three-language policy were steps towards such inclusive education. We need to broaden and strengthen our attempts even more. As I have insisted before in these columns, we cannot have equity and equality without paying attention to all our languages. It is only by education in these languages that we will create conditions for our constitutional aims of equality, equity and strong democracy. Access to education is a right of every citizen of the country and it will lead to an access to and the enforcement of all rights conferred by citizenship.

We know the need for translation from and into all our languages, we need to have access to education in all our mother tongues — this is how we can achieve our early and constant dream of unity in diversity. Diversity is the important term here; there can be no forced cultural and linguistic unity in a democracy, and definitely not in a large country like ours. We do not want to create secondary citizens, ones whose sense of identity is always under threat, whose lives and cultures are marginalised.

This is a lesson, ‘the’ lesson, for the world –— the health of the planet depends on how well we are integrated as humankind. We can be so integrated only when no community’s sense of self is trampled underfoot by forces unleashed by globalisation or other economic or political practices. Each language is a different view and understanding of the world. When a language disappears every two weeks, we are harming ourselves as much as we harm the planet when species disappear. Our planet depends on sustainable practices, on our understanding that our earth belongs to others as well and that is how we have come to exist and that we have no future without the survival of other species. In the same manner, we have no future as humanity if we lose our languages.

Our richness of understanding depends on the survival of our various languages, the cultures they are part of, and the worlds and knowledge systems they embody.

Sure, celebrate whichever language you want to, but celebrate other languages as well. More power to all mother tongues!

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