7 Questions You May Have About International Mother Language Day

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So you’ve heard about International Mother Language Day (IMLD), but what is it *really* about? Why did UNESCO deem it important enough in 1999 to be celebrated annually, on February 21? And what IS a “mother language”, anyway? Here are some Questions you may have about this special holiday:

1. A “mother language” is a language that you learn from your mother…right? 

Well, yes. But it’s also a little more complicated than that! The phrase “mother language” can actually be used in different ways, by different people; it depends a lot on a person’s self-identity. For example, someone may say that their mother language is the first language they learned (the language they speak from birth, learned from their mother). Another person may say that their mother language is the language of their ancestors, but they may not necessarily speak that language. When UNESCO first established IMLD, here’s how they defined the term “mother language”:

Mother Tongue – The term ‘mother tongue’, although widely used, may refer to several different situations. Definitions often include the following elements: the language(s) that one has learnt first; the language(s) one identifies with, or is identified as a native speaker of by others; the language(s) one knows best and the language(s) one uses most. ‘Mother tongue’ may also be referred to as ‘primary’ or ‘first language’.

How do you define “mother language”? (Or “father language”?)

2. When did IMLD start?

UNESCO proclaimed this annual observation in 1999, but the first celebration took place on February 21, 2000. To read about how different countries celebrate International Mother Language Day, check out this UNESCO report on activities from 2000-2007: click here to download.

3. Why are mother languages important?

According to UNESCO, an estimated 40% of the world population do not receive education in a language that they speak or understand. We know from history about boarding/residential schools around the world that when a people are deprived of the choice to be educated in their own language, whole cultures are eroded. The fact that today, 40% of the global population is still not given a choice to learn their ancestral languages or to be educated in those languages, is a tremendous loss for everyone! Education in mother tongues is extremely important because more than half of the world’s languages will be gone by the end of the century.

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Which brings us to the next question…

4. Why do we celebrate International Mother Language Day?

Because everyone deserves to have a choice to learn and speak the language of their ancestors. While most of us take for granted the ability to speak the language of our childhood and our people, almost half of the world population doesn’t even get to have that choice. Why? Because many (indigenous) languages are lost in the shadow of language giants like English, French and other languages that have hundreds of thousands of speakers. There is not as much awareness and not as many resources for minority languages. So, to quote UNESCO…

By observing this day, our Member States are helping to protect cultural and linguistic diversity, while promoting languages as a means of communication and cultural exchange among different peoples. […] But more than promoting the survival of minority languages, International Mother Language Day is also helping to raise awareness of their value as part of the tangible and intangible heritage of humankind.

5. How are other people “celebrating”?

On this day, people around the world write, Tweet, and post videos of themselves or others speaking their languages. There are so many things you can do to promote awareness of minority languages! Check out some suggestions on this post.

6. Where can I learn more about International Mother Language Day 2016?

The UNESCO website has some great information, including a neat downloadable infographic and information about this year’s theme “Quality education, language(s) of instruction and learning outcomes”. There are also a variety of events happening for the observance day. A list can be found on the All Things Linguistic blog, on the Living Tongues Institute for Endangered Languages page and on multiple Facebook pages like this one and this one.

7. What’s The Language Conservancy doing to celebrate and promote this day?

We’re glad you asked!

  • We’re co-hosting an IMLD celebration in New York City with our partner organizations. Read more about the event here.