M3 Features

International Mother Language Day

February 21, 2014

The struggle for one’s mother language is perhaps nowhere better enshrined than in the tumultuous events of 1952 in Bangladesh.

At the partition of India in 1947, the province of Bengal was divided – the western part became part of India and the eastern part became a province of Pakistan, known as East Bengal and later East Pakistan. However, there was economic, cultural and lingual friction between East and West Pakistan.

These tensions were apparent in 1948 when the government of Pakistan declared Urdu to be the sole national language. This sparked protests amongst the Bengali-speaking majority in East Pakistan. The government outlawed the protests, but on February 21, 1952, students at the University of Dhaka and other activists organised a protest. Later that day, the police opened fire at the demonstrators and killed four students – Rafiquddin Ahmed, Abdus Salam, Abul Barkat and Abdul Jabbar. The deaths of these, and later, of other students while fighting for the right to use their mother language are now remembered on International Mother Language Day. After continual unrest, Bengali was at last declared an official language in Pakistan on February 26, 1956. Following the Liberation War in 1971, Bangladesh became an independent country with Bengali as its official language.

At the initiative of the Bangladeshi government, on November 17, 1999, UNESCO proclaimed February 21 as International Mother Language Day and it was first observed on February 21, 2000. Each year the celebrations around International Mother Language Day concentrate on a particular theme. The theme for 2014 is ‘Local languages for global citizenship: spotlight on science’.

The 4 martyrs of February 21 - (from left) Rafiquddin Ahmed, Abdus Salam, Abul Barkat, Abdul Jabbar


A day of celebrations

  • February 21 is a day of nationwide celebrations in Bangladesh – it is the anniversary of a pivotal day in the country's history.
  • People lay flowers at Shaheed Minar (Martyrs’ Monument) in Dhaka.
  • Celebrations through various cultural programmes, singing of patriotic songs, peace marches mark the day throughout Bangladesh.
  • They also purchase glass bangles for themselves or female relatives; eat a festive meal and organise parties; and award prizes or host literary competitions.
  • In West Bengal too, the day is celebrated with fanfare at many places. It is a time to celebrate the Bengali language.
  • On this day, UNESCO and other UN agencies participate in events that promote linguistic and cultural diversity; UNESCO promotes this diversity through a theme for each year.
  • They also encourage people to maintain their knowledge of their mother language while learning and using more than one language.
  • Governments and non-governmental organisations may use the day to announce policies to encourage language learning and support.
  • The Barcelona-based Linguapax Institute, created by UNESCO in 1987, which aims to preserve and promote linguistic diversity globally, presents the Linguapax Prize on International Mother Language Day each year to those who have made outstanding work in linguistic diversity or multilingual education.


The IMLD posters for 2014 by UNESCO



Revolution to scientific recognition

Thus the movement for the recognition of a mother language, a bloody struggle indeed, has now been transformed into a movement for preservation of linguistic diversity. And there is a clear scientific basis for this approach. Research shows mother tongue-based bilingual or multilingual approaches in education – an important factor for inclusion and quality in education – has a positive impact on learning and learning outcomes.

UNESCO provides normative frameworks for language policy and education and shares good practices in bilingual and multilingual education and mother tongue instruction.

“We know how important education in the mother language is for learning outcomes. Mother language instruction is a powerful way to fight discrimination and reach out to marginalized populations.”
  ~ Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day in 2011


Written by Anushtup Haldar for Team M3.tv


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