Monday, February 21, 2011

Origins of International Mother Language Day

February 21 is International Mother Language Day. The observance is held annually worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. Though the first worldwide inception was proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November 1999, its history runs deeper and darker than its current state of celebration might indicate.

International Mother Language Day exists because of a battle over the right to speak a language. It originated as Language Movement Day, which has been commemorated in Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) since 1952. During that year, a number of University of Dhaka students were killed by the Pakistani police and military during Bengali Language Movement protests.

The events that led up to that day started on 21 March, 1948, when the Governor General of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, declared Urdu as the only official language for both West and East Pakistan. The mainly Bengali-speaking people of East Pakistan (which is now Bangladesh) protested against it, starting the Bengali Language Movement. On 21 February, 1952, students in the present day capital city of Dhaka called for a provincial strike. The government declared a limited curfew to try and prevent this. Though the protests were tame and the students unarmed, the Pakistani police fired on them anyway, killing at least four. Four more were killed the following day.

The first anniversary on 21 February, 1953, was observed in the country as Martyrs' Day. More than 100,000 people assembled at a public meeting held in Armanitola in Dhaka. West Pakistani politicians exacerbated the situation by declaring anyone who wanted Bengali to become an official language to be an "enemy of the state." February 21st 1954 and 1955 were equally tense and as the movement spread through East Pakistan, the whole province came to a standstill.

The first peaceful observance of Language Movement Day was in 1956. The government had relented during the previous year. On 29 February 1956, Bengali was officially recognized as the second language of Pakistan. The country's constitution was reworded to say "The state language of Pakistan shall be Urdu and Bengali." Language Movement Day is thought to have been the start for the independence movement, which eventually resulted in the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.

The observance spread beyond the young nation. International Mother Language Day has been observed worldwide every year since February 21, 2000. The United Nations General Assembly proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of Languages, to promote unity in diversity and international understanding through multilingualism and multiculturalism. On 16 May, 2009, the General Assembly called upon Member States "to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world".

Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing heritage and history that can date back thousands of years. Every action to promote the dissemination of mother tongues encourages linguistic diversity and multilingual education. Their study also helps to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world, inspiring solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

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