International Mother Language Day is observed every year on February 21 to honour those in Bangladesh who sacrificed their lives to protect their mother tongue, Bangla, against the then rulers of West Pakistan and to honour the ethno-linguistic rights of individuals across the world.
The transition from East Pakistan to Bangladesh has a blood-stained story behind it. For the first time in world history, a mother tongue became the focal point for an independence movement. In March 1948, just months after the birth of Pakistan, Pakistani leader Mohammad Ali Jinnah declared that the state language of Pakistan would be Urdu. All official communication from then was to be in Urdu and the language was made compulsory in schools. Meanwhile, Bangla, which is a completely different language, was removed as a subject in schools and from stamps and currency.
Students of Dhaka University began their protest on February 21, 1952 against the ‘Urdu only’ policy. The police began indiscriminate firing on the students, killing many of them. Since then, February 21 is observed as ‘Shaheed Dibosh (Martyrs’ Day)’ in Bangladesh to pay tribute to Shaheed Salam, Barkat, Rafiq, Abdul Jabbar, Shafiur Rahman, and many more. Their passion for their mother tongue and devotion towards their motherland forced the Pakistani leadership to make Bangla one of the official languages of Pakistan in 1954.
The language movement not only gave rise to the Bengali national identity in the then Pakistan, but also became the stepping stone for the Bengali nationalist movement, the six-point movement, the student movement in 1962, the uprising in 1969 and the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War. This is perhaps the only movement in history that started with protecting linguistic and cultural rights and ultimately led to the birth of an independent nation, Bangladesh.
Language is one of the most important characteristics of the foundation of a culture. Cesar Chavez said, “A language is an exact reflection of the character and growth of its speakers.” Language is the most powerful tool that forges social, economic, and cultural ties. Today, multilingualism and intercultural communication are growing phenomena. Due to globalisation and interconnectedness, vastly spoken languages have gained supremacy and indigenous languages have been increasingly localised. The haste to receive better job opportunities has led to people learning foreign languages and resulted in the disappearance of mother tongues. Linguistic diversity is increasingly threatened. According to the United Nations, at least 43% of the estimated 6,000 languages spoken in the world are endangered. The UN proclaimed the period between 2022-2032 as the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, “to draw global attention to the critical status of many indigenous languages around the world and to mobilize stakeholders and resources for their preservation, revitalization, and promotion.”
The Internet is vastly dominated by English and a handful of other languages. The digital presence of most people who speak indigenous languages and dialects is nearly zero. Individuals often discredit their own language. Since it is not on the Internet, the validity of the language is questioned, and learning or practising it further is often discouraged. From keyboards to programming languages to incompatible hardware and software to website domains, social media and applications, the linguistic divide prevents a majority of local speakers from being a part of the rest of the online world.
Ray of hope
International Mother Language Day 2022 was celebrated across the world with the theme, ‘Using technology for multilingual learning: Challenges and opportunities’. It highlighted the role of technology in developing multilingual education and in supporting the development of quality teaching and learning for all. The fight for local languages to be on the web has been supported by tech giants like Amazon and Facebook, as their products are available in a few local languages. Google Translate has brought numerous regional cultures closer together. The translations are undertaken by AI and native language experts who have experience and a solid academic background.
Hundreds of languages are spoken, written, and translated across the world. Linguistic diversity defines our socio-cultural identity, connects us with our heritage, and is the foundational pillar of civilizations. The blood-stained streets of Dhaka in 1952 remain a powerful reminder of the vitality of our mother languages even today.
Syed Munir Khasru is Chairman of the international think tank, The Institute for Policy, Advocacy, and Governance, New Delhi, India, with a presence in Dhaka, Melbourne, Vienna and Dubai. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org