The International Mother Tongue Day – and Its Significance

by Dr Fernand de Varennes*

The situation facing most of the world’s languages is dire, with the rate of language extinction increasing dramatically in more recent years with at least one language disappearing every two weeks. This means that more than half of the world’s almost 7000 languages will probably be lost within four generations. It is one of the most obvious trends occurring in this era of globalisation.

This accelerated pace of disappearance is not a natural phenomenon. It is rather a result of the increased intrusion and prominence of the state and its machinery in everyday life which is probably largely to blame, at times being used by governments as a reason for the imposition of a single, exclusive official language. Thus industrialisation and the increasing regulation and intrusion of state authorities in most aspects of peoples’ lives from the 19th century has meant increased pressures to choose and use only one language, thus leading in many cases to the weakening of minority and indigenous languages. More recently, the internationalization of financial markets, the dissemination of information by electronic media and other aspects of globalization have intensified the threat to ‘smaller’ languages.

There are however other factors affecting issues of language use or protection in recent decades which signal that what is occurring today is not simply a tsunami wiping out most of the world’s languages. It is in this sense that 21 February is a date that marks this other trend: it was proclaimed by UNESCO’s General Conference on 17 November 1999 as International Mother Language day to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. In addition, a joint Council of Europe and European Commission initiative saw the proclamation of 26 September as the European Day of Languages. These follow a number of other developments, including among others the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Cultural Diversity, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, and more recently the year 2008 was celebrated as the International Year of Languages as well as the European Year for Intercultural Dialogue. In Europe, the Council of Europe has two legally binding treaties that deal with language maintenance or language rights: the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

Mother language day poster - Illustration by Lehel Kovács

As people around the world celebrate 21 February, the significance of the interaction between language rights and international human rights law needs also to be kept in mind. While the choice of an official language is not affected by international human rights law, as the European Court of Human Rights has made clear in a number of judgments such as Mentzen v. Latvia in 2004, it must still comply with international human rights standards. To give but one example, in 2000 (Diergaardt v. Namibia), the UN Human Rights Committee was of the opinion that a minority language, Afrikaans in Namibia, had to be used to some degree by official authorities in addition to English, the country’s only official language, in order to comply with non-discrimination on the ground of language, since there was no explanation why using English exclusively – the country’s only official language – was reasonable and justified in the circumstances. This is important to remember because the choice of the 21 February as International Mother Language Day is not by pure chance: it is linked to events in Bangladesh (then part of Pakistan) where a demonstration on 21 February 1952 against an announced move to make Urdu the only language to be used by public authorities in the country. Large numbers of demonstrators gathered against what was seen as a highly discriminatory measure – potentially excluding from government employment and other opportunities the vast majority of the population living in East Pakistan who for the most part were only fluent in Bangla and not Urdu. A group of mainly young students were on that day shot and killed by police in Dhaka, thus giving rise to the language movement which would eventually propel that part of Pakistan towards full independence.

It should therefore not be forgotten on 21 February that language issues and demands as occurred in Dhaka can also involve at times human rights: the freedom to use one’s own language in private activities (freedom of expression), to have one’s name in one’s own language (right to private life), and to be educated in state schools using a minority language as language of instruction where you have substantial enough numbers and where it is reasonable and justified (non-discrimination), have been recognized in some situations as being protected under international human rights standards, and these must prevail over official language policies as part of international law. This will be part of a continuing evolution that will take many more years to coalesce and be clarified, but at least they offer an increasing degree of hope for the future.

We therefore live in a period where the prevailing Zeitgeist is at least receptive to the notion that we do not have to be identical ethnically or linguistically. The increased willingness of the international community to recognise some language and minority rights suggests that there may be additional means in a number of cases to protect languages as a fundamental part of our common human heritage. What we will hopefully see in the coming decades from a legal and political points of view is the recognition that there are basic rights connected to language, and that these require that governments use the languages of the people to a proportionate and reasonable degree, thus making at least some languages languages of power, languages of opportunity, and hopefully languages of the future. Hopefully, this will lead to even more efforts, as called for on 16 May 2009 by the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution A/RES/61/266 “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.”

Special thanks to Lehel Kovács for permitting the use of his work.

Dr Fernand de Varennes is a continuing visiting professor at the University of Pretoria (South Africa), Vytautas Magnus University (Lithuania) and the University of Hong Kong (China), and has contributed as a guest lecturer in some 20 African, Asian, and European universities. His research and publications record spans some 150 publications in 26 languages covering six continents. In recognition of his work and achievements, he has received international accolades in Asia and Europe, including the 2004 Linguapax Award (Barcelona, Spain), the Tip O’Neill Peace Fellowship (Northern Ireland), and was nominated for the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights (Gwangju, South Korea).

Readers are encouraged to quote, reproduce and share this content for educational, non-profit purposes, provided the source is acknowledged. The views expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the HR&D team.


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