International Mother Language Day: All you need to know

Here’s all you need to know about the history of International Mother Language Day, celebrated on February 21.

The foundation block in communication is language.

We learn languages first from our mothers. So International Mother Language Day becomes more important to to respect, acknowledge and understand the importance of language to effectively communicate with the world as well as the role that mothers play in it.

The world has many languages, cultures and traditions,  language also varies in dialects, particularly in a country like India, which stands as an emblem of linguistic and cultural diversity for the world.

International Mother Language Day therefore needs to be celebrated in India more than anywhere else.

However, the movement for International Mother Language Day did not start in India.
International Mother Language Day was first started in Bangladesh.

International Mother Language Day History

On February 21, 1952, four students were killed. as they started the movement to make Bengali as the official language in Bangladesh.

After the British gave up their control over the Indian subcontinent, the Partition of 1947 saw the eastern part of Bengal being given to newly-formed Pakistan, despite it having a mainly ethnic Bengali population.

The Dominion of Pakistan had two parts: West Pakistan and East Pakistan comprised of Bengalis whose primary mother language was Bangla.

West and East Pakistan were very different from each other in terms of culture and language, separated by India in between. In 1948, the Government of the Dominion of Pakistan declared Islam the main religion in East Pakistan and that Urdu would be the sole national language, and that Bengali writing could be translated into Arabic script.

East Pakistan launched a massive protest against the diktat and demanded that Bangla should be made at least one of the national languages in Pakistan in addition to Urdu.

East Pakistan representatives first raised this demand in Pakistan’s Constituent Assembly, leading to further widespread protest, which led to a settlement.

The controversy of Urdu imposition reared again as Jinnah’s successor, governor-general Khawaja Nazimuddin staunchly defended the ‘Urdu-only’ policy in a speech on January 27, 1952.

Once again, East Pakistan erupted in protest and the Pakistani government banned public meetings and rallies to quash matters.

In 1952, the students of Dhaka University and other educational institutions assembled at Dhaka University premises in defiance of Section 144 imposed by the government to fight for their mother language.

They protested the proposal to write Bengali in Arabic script and demanded Bengali be recognized as the state language. The student protest began on February 4 and began to grow in strength.

On February 21, things turned violent.

What happened on February 21?

On February 21, 1952, students assembled at the Dhaka University premises for a protest.

Armed police first fired tear gas shells on orders and arrested several students for violating Section 144.

The arrests angered the students who gathered around the East Bengal Legislative Assembly and blocked the way of the legislators to get their voices heard.

When some of the students tried to enter the Assembly, police opened fire and killed several students. Government reports state 29 people were killed on that day.

Reaction to the February 21 incident

The incidents of February 21, 1952, triggered massive protests in East Pakistan and on May 7, 1954, the Bengali language was given official status in Pakistan.

The language movement was a seminal incident as it would change the course of history in the subcontinent.

Despite the decision in 1954, West Pakistan began to impose Urdu on the people of East Pakistan and neglected their interests.

The language movement triggered the assertion of a larger Bengali national identity in East Pakistan.

This became a forerunner to Bengali nationalist movements, including the 6-Point Movement and subsequently the Bangladesh Liberation War, culminating in the birth of a new country, Bangladesh.

In November, 1999, the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) proclaimed International Mother Language Day, which was later welcomed by the General Assembly of the UN.

Every year in Bangladesh, the martyrs are remembered with respect on International Mother Language Day.

The theme for International Mother Language Day 2024 is ‘multilingual education-a pillar of learning and intergenerational learning.’

‘Multilingual and multicultural societies thrive through the preservation of their languages, which serve as conduits for traditional knowledge and cultural heritage.

However, linguistic diversity faces increasing threats as more languages vanish. Currently, 40% of the global population lacks access to education in their native language, a figure that exceeds 90% in certain regions.

Research underscores the benefits of using learners’ native languages in education, fostering better learning outcomes, self-esteem, and critical thinking skills.

This approach also supports intergenerational learning and cultural preservation,’ wrote the United Nations on its official website.

International Mother Language Day