Examining the legacy of February 1952
Languages and communication connect a mother and a child. Both verbal and non-verbal communication are quintessential to nurturing this relation, and also act as the building blocks of the first understandings of life. Thus, the expressions “mother language” or “mother tongue” hold special significance.
International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the Unesco General Conference in November 1999. In its resolution on May 16, 2009, the UN General Assembly called on its member states to “promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world.”
This day was first celebrated on February 21, 2000, and the formal initiation was witnessed on February 21, 2008. This brought in the celebration of the International Year of Languages -- pursuing a Unesco resolution. It also reaffirmed the need to achieve full parity among the six official languages on UN websites, give proper significance to linguistic diversity, and respect multilingualism.
Today, the symbolism of International Mother Language Day does not merely stand as that of a particular geographical area, but incorporates a key message to preserve our identities in a global village.
The story behind the observation dates several decades back -- to honour the Bangla language movement in Bangladesh in 1952. Since then, the day marks an important event and a pivotal national celebration across Bangladesh, with millions of people paying homage at the Shaheed Minar.
The story behind the gradual growth and development of Bangla finally helped form the platform of the International Mother Language Day. It evolved along with other Eastern Indo-Aryan languages circa 1000–1200 AD from Sanskrit and Magadhi Prakrit.
The local Apabhramśa of the eastern sub-continent, Purbi Apabhramśa or Abahatta (“meaningless sounds”) finally developed down the ages into various regional dialects -- Bangla–Assamese languages, the Bihari languages, and the Odia language. Many critics opine the point of divergence occurred at a much earlier period. Nevertheless, the language was never static -- various dialects developed and several authors wrote in multiple dialects down the course of history.
Proto-Bangla was the language of the Pala Empire and the Sena dynasty of the erstwhile Bengal region. It was deeply patronised by the rulers and kings of medieval times and was duly used in the royal courts. This received a further degree of significance under the colonial British rule of the region. Thus, Bangla developed in close association with other languages, including Sanskrit, Arabic, and Persian, as well as English.
Bangla also has close relations with several other, lesser known languages of the world. Coming close to Hindi, it is recognized as the second most widely spoken of the 22 scheduled languages of India.
Today, this rich history has grown to create an all-inclusive platform of cultural understanding. In present times, International Mother Language Day carries with it a sombre and sacred note, but nevertheless the same love and respect is also reflected through creative festivities and various cultural programs around the globe. These help promote both linguistic and cultural diversity.
The UN also uses this special day to make various announcements, supporting this endeavour and also work related to policy changes in relation to language learning. Thus, above all, it is not merely a day to observe the sanctity of a language, but one that helps celebrate the culture and ethos of the Bangla language.
Over the years, this message has beautifully and intrinsically come to reflect the same celebration in other countries as well. These include various countries of the Saarc region as well as other parts of the globe. While several of these celebrations are often inspired, arranged, and encouraged by the respective embassies of Bangladesh, there are many programs which are organized independently by others.
Every year, the Linguapax Institute in Barcelona, Spain, aims to preserve and promote linguistic diversity globally by presenting the Linguapax Prize on International Mother Language Day; it is presented for outstanding work in linguistic diversity or multilingual education.
A century earlier, Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore had also highlighted the intrinsic need of an education system which primarily bases itself on the (local) mother language to reach out to the masses. This was a departure from the prevalent popularity of English -- a foreign language-based education system in the sub-continent.
Prior to him, various stalwarts also worked tirelessly to bring knowledge and education closer to the masses through an organized system of education through the Bangla language. The contributions of Madan Mohan Tarkalankar, Vidyasagar, and also Debendranath Tagore stood apart in their tireless and diligent efforts.
Rabindranath Tagore’s textbooks, Sahaj Path, helped fill a long-felt vacuum for vernacular education. Today, following a very similar ideology, vernacular or mother language-based education systems occupy an important part of an organized education system in various countries.
Several countries have effectively incorporated a blend of mother tongue-based education into the official languages of respective regions. This has also resulted in effective systems of bilingual education.
A fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions across the world helps “inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance, and dialogue,” according to the UN. This understanding provides a much-needed platform for cultural dialogue and a special kind of beauty which “is born in language, of language, and for language.” (Gaston Bachelard).
Dr Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai is a visual anthropologist, international columnist, and author.