The United Nations marked the International Mother Language Day Tuesday under the banner “Towards Sustainable Futures through Multilingual Education,” calling on nations to promote minority and Indigenous languages in order to promote sustainable futures for all people.
“On the occasion of this day, I launch an appeal for the potential of multilingual education to be acknowledged everywhere, in education and administrative systems, in cultural expressions and the media, cyberspace and trade,” said Irina Bokova, the director of the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
The day was adopted by the organization in November 1999 and has since been celebrated every year on Feb. 21.
The date was chosen as a commemoration for the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.
“Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage,” the UNESCO said in a press release marking the day.
“All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.”
Erasing the languages of minorities has taken place in many nations around the world and continues to be one of the main practices of oppressive regimes with multi-ethnic populations.
In the United States and Canada abolishing the cultures and languages of Indigenous people continued to take place until only a few decades ago, with some arguing that the two nations continue a new subtle form of attacking the Native people’s culture.
In a case known as “Sixties Scoop,” between 1965 and 1984 the Canadian federal government had Native children removed from Aboriginal reserves and placed in non-Indigenous homes which resulted in the children's loss of their original identity, culture and languages and later exposed them to mental disorders, substance abuse and suicide.
Just last week a higher Canadian court ruled the government was liable for harming thousands of Aboriginal children who had been trying to sue for eight years and just last year were able to present their case.
In the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, the country had a policy of taking Native American children away from their families and sending them to assimilation-focused boarding schools where Indigenous languages and other cultural practices were banned in order to “kill the Indian” in the students.
More than 100,000 Native children were victims of that policy, which ended in the 1930s. Canada had imported the same policy from the U.S. in dealing with its own Native population. In Australia, the same practice ensued with the Aboriginal population of that country.
Also until 1991 speaking Kurdish in Turkey was illegal as part of the Turkish policy of “Turkifying” all people within its borders. Kurds, who make up more than 20 percent of the population of Turkey, were labeled as “mountain Turks” and the use of the Kurdish language or even the word “Kurd” was banned and punishable by prison.
It was not until the late 2000s that Kurdish was allowed to be used in political campaigning and in the media. In 2013, the Kurdish language was allowed to be taught in schools as an optional course. However, Kurdish continues to be banned from being the language of instruction in public and private schools in the country.
During colonialism in Africa, many local languages suffered as European countries sought to impose their languages on the populations. Many in North Africa speak French as their first language while their fluency in Arabic and other tribal ones lag behind.
Several Latin American countries such as Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay have made strides in recognizing and strengthening Native languages after the Spanish colonialists suppressed them for centuries.