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International Mother Language Day 2021: Facts, Significance

As someone who has learnt multiple languages throughout my life and still learning, I wholeheartedly appreciate the call by the UN to observe a day that encourages multilingualism.

Approved in 1999, International Mother Language Day has been observed since 2000 in commemoration of four young students who were killed in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, due to a Bengali and Urdu language controversy. UNESCO, the lead agency, believes in the importance of cultural and linguistic diversity for sustainable societies and advancing inclusion, especially with regards to indigenous peoples. Linguistic diversity in particular is on the decline, with an estimated 230 languages going extinct between 1950 and 2010. As younger generations become more multi-lingual and embrace the more popular languages in favour of their mother tongue, there is the concern that 43% of the world's 6000 languages are in danger of disappearing, with a little less than 100 languages being used in the digital sphere.

The theme for 2021 is 'Fostering Multilingualism for Inclusion in Education and Society.' UNESCO is calling 'on policymakers, educators and teachers, parents and families to scale up their commitment to multilingual education, including sign language and inclusion in education to advance education recovery in the context of COVID-19.'

Our language is the first tool used to cultivate our identity. We use it to share our stories and our histories, cultural beliefs and rituals. With the loss of any language, the world loses a part of our collective consciousness, a different perspective and a different way of experiencing the world.

One way countries can help preserve their mother tongues is by officially declaring it as such. With colonialism, many countries were forced to adopt languages such as, English, French or Portuguese. Countries like Tanzania have chosen Kiswahili, a major Bantu language spoken in East Africa, which is also the most widely spoken language on the African continent, as a national language. Tanzania also adopted English as the formal language for international communication, therefore it is not uncommon for someone in Tanzania to speak two or three languages, for example, their mother tongue which is spoken in their village, then Kiswahili and English.

Another way to preserve native endangered languages is to document them in the form of a dictionary, as well as, recording indigenous stories both orally and written. The internet has provided the opportunity for speakers of rare languages to communicate with each other. Entities such as National Geographic are working on platforms to help preserve these languages like their app, Talking Dictionaries, which includes definitions, audio files and images. Other apps are being developed with the view to save our indigenous languages and are available for use by anyone interested in learning.

Preserving the languages of the world needs to be a collective effort. Rediscovering the languages of your native country could be a good way to start in saving it from being lost forever.

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