In 1952 in Dhaka, Pakistan (now Bangladesh), a group of students were shot and killed by police for demonstrating against the government’s announcement that Urdu shall be the only official language of the country. The students were speakers of Bangla and only wanted for their own language to be officially recognised.
Since 1999, their protest has been commemorated by the establishment of International Mother Language Day by UNESCO, with 2008 celebrated as UNESCO’s International Year of Languages.
A couple of months ago, I discovered a local connection to this story as well. In Ashfield Park in Sydney’s inner-west, there’s a monument in recognition of the Bangla protest, titled ‘Conserve your mother language’. As you can see in the photo (click to enlarge), it lists a few languages and includes examples of their alphabets. Unfortunately Australia’s 250 or so indigenous languages are represented as a group by the term ‘Aboriginal’, but I for one appreciate the effort all the same.
Languages worldwide are facing a future more uncertain than that of the print media, as the global spread of the four or five international super languages (English, Mandarin, Arabic, Spanish, etc) is gradually pushing people to give up on their mother languages. This is of course, entirely unnecessary, as we know that bilingualism and multilingualism are in fact the global norm, rather than the exception. However this may change throughout this century as the trend towards monolingualism continues.
Having said that, I also have enormous faith in the power of the internet and the globalised communicative world that minority languages can find a way to survive in the face of such adversity. Social media in particular has a large role to play, and as speakers of the world’s many thousands of minority languages are increasingly using forms of communication like Facebook and Twitter, we should hopefully see more and more languages being used that were previously entirely invisible to outsiders.
You too can do your bit to help out, by speaking to someone whose first language isn’t English, at your workplace for instance, and asking them what their mother language is. In my experience, people are more than happy to talk about their first language, as they have probably been living in a country that would appear to discourage their use of it. You might even find out how to say hello to them in their first language.
So from us here at Fully (sic), Happy Mother Languages Day!