Every year, we in Bangladesh, observe with deep respect February 21 as ‘Shahid Dibash’ or the ‘Day of Martyrs’. We remember the martyrs who sacrificed their lives on this day in 1952 to establish our right to speak in Bangla, our mother language.
Administration of the then Pakistan decided that Urdu would be the only state language of Pakistan. Bengalis, the majority population of Pakistan, who spoke in Bangla, protested and demanded that both Urdu and Bangla be the official languages. Students came out in protest in Dhaka on February 21, and many were killed on the street by police firing.
Eventually Bangla did become the official language of Pakistan, but the sad event flared the Bengali nationalism, and with time, under the leadership of our Father of the Nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh emerged. Bangladesh—which means ‘the country where Bangla is spoken’, perhaps, is the only country in the world, known by its language. And this shows our passionate love for our mother language that represents our cultural heritage of thousands of years.
For every people, mother language is crucial to their identity. Language is not only a means through which we communicate with each other, it is also a medium that carries our age-old heritages to us from our ancestors. It connects people, time, and generations.
Language is what a child learns from her mother, family and society, and therefore it shapes a child in what kind of person, one day, she would be. It is child’s one of the first tools for emotional and cognitive development that builds her personal universe, and connects her to the wider world, to the actions of understanding, of being understood, and most importantly, to creativity. And these learnings never really fade away, notwithstanding however small community speak the child’s mother language.
Like a river, language has its own course: it adapts, adopts, and morphs. And it too, thrives or dies. In this world, every year many Languages become extinct. And with them, die the indigenous knowledge and the wisdom that they carry: the myths, the legends, the folklore, the emotions, the sounds and symbols, the entire evolution.
Therefore, we must remember that with the death of every language, we also lose part of who we are, and what we could offer to the world. And that is, an enormous loss.
In March 1998, a multi-lingual and multi-ethnic group residing in Canada, which is known as “Language Lover of the World”, wrote to the UN Secretary General highlighting that many small ethnic groups are forced to use other languages, and eventually are deprived of their own mother languages forcing those to be near extinct. They suggested to observe one day annually as the Mother Language Day and proposed February 21 for the same, due to the immense sacrifices made on this day, for the rights of speaking in one’s mother language. The group included two Bangla speaking (Rafiqul Alam, and Abdus Salam), two English speaking, two Tagalog speaking (Albert Vinzon, and Carmen Cristobal), and one Urdu, one German, one Cantonese, and one Hindi speaking persons. Soon, Bangladesh, as a state, adopted and pursued the idea within the UNESCO.
Finally, to celebrate the diversity of languages, and its concomitant heritage values, on 17 November in 1999, the General Conference of UNESCO declared February 21 as the International Mother Language Day (IMLD). A day, that we Bangladeshis remember as our Day of Commitment to our cultural roots and our mother language—Bangla, has now become a global occasion to celebrate the linguistic diversity and heritages of the world.
Over six thousand languages are spoken in the world. Every language has its own organic growth: own sounds, symbols, meanings and grammar. Some are written, some are not. And with them, they have accompanying expressions: body languages, gestures, reflections. All these carry certain traits of history and culture of a people speaking in the language. Moreover, each one is endowed with a vast ocean of creative omnibus.
On the International Mother Language Day, we celebrate all the languages of the world. All six thousands of them, and more. We pay our homage to all mother languages, equally. We value each one of them with its own traditions, creative wealth, folklore, wisdom, sounds, symbols and emotions. They are our irreplaceable heritage. We do not want them to be extinct, we commit to spare no efforts to save them and their accompanying heritage. These languages reflect diversity of our humanity, our common inheritance in them, and our universal commitment to plurality.
Feelings and dreams of our shared future are expressed in languages and cross over from one language to another, get understood, and remained belonged to all of us. Languages bridge peace, initiate and sustain dialogues.
In Sustainable Goal 4, the 2030 Agenda visions quality education for all; enabling everyone to explore and establish his/her potentials. UNESCO’s Education 2030 Framework for Action, a road map to implement Goal 4, put complete efforts and attention in the use of mother language in learning and teaching. And to promotion and protection of global linguistic diversity including multilingualism.
On February 21, this year, as we pay our deepest respect to Rafiq, Jabbar, Salam, and Barkat—our language martyrs, who sacrificed their lives in 1952 for our rights to speak in Bangla; we also join the global efforts to save and flourish all the languages in the world. Let us all cherish our mother language, the one in which, we first call our mother. And in doing so, let us remind ourselves once again, that however diverse we may look—in essence—we are all one.
BY ASAD ALAM SIAM, AMBASSADOR OF BANGLADESH TO THE PHILIPPINES