Language barriers and the threat to thousands of endangered world languages serve as a major hindrance in the everyday lives of many people. However, in 1999, the United Nations set out to change that with the establishment of International Mother Language Day, which will be celebrated Thursday.
When Pakistan was formed in 1947, it was culturally divided into two distinct parts, the East and the West. A year later, the people of West Pakistan declared Urdu the national language of Pakistan, resulting in numerous protests from their Bengali-speaking neighbors to the East.
On February 21st, 1952, students from The University of Dhaka, in Bangladesh, marched in protest over the years of denial they faced from the government. During the march, police were ordered to open fire on the students, killing many of them. This eventually led to Pakistan adding Bengali as one of the national languages in 1956. East Pakistan declared its independence and became Bangladesh in 1971, with Bengali as their official language.
“As a native Thai-speaker who lives and works in the U.S., I truly appreciate the significance of this day,” Ohio University World Languages Coordinator Pittaya Paladroi-Shane said in an email. “It reminds me how great it is to be able to use your mother tongue openly to communicate my thoughts and ideas to the others freely, without fear, shame or adverse reaction.”
To this day, Bengali is the only language that people have sacrificed their lives for.
On November 17th, 1999, the UNESCO declared February 21st, the day the protests began, as International Mother Language Day to encourage multilingualism and bring awareness to languages on the path to extinction.
“I am very thankful that I can still use Thai to tell my own stories, the stories of my people (Thai), and pass on my knowledge of Thai to my language students,” Paladroi-Shane said in an email.
Years later, the holiday still has a special place in many people’s lives. Paladroi-Shane says the holiday reminds her of the importance of her mother language while living in a country where there can be a sense of mistrust with people who speak other languages.
Chris Thompson, a Japanese professor and a cultural anthropologist elaborated on the fact his department interacts with mother languages on a daily basis.
“We teach what is several languages that are the mother languages of several faculty members,” Thompson said. “English is not the only mother language that Americans speak anymore.”
Several of these mother languages, however, are on their way out.
According to the United Nations, 43 percent of the estimated 6,000 world languages are “endangered.” Only a few hundred languages have a place in the educational system and less than a hundred are used in the digital world. Ohio University offers 28 languages, including sign language and Setswana, which will be added in the fall.
“Generally, an endangered language is something that is either not being taught in school or higher institutions at all or is less commonly taught and also something that is obviously spoken by a group of people that their culture is not exactly continuing on or not growing,” Alex Koran, a senior studying Development Geography & Global Studies Africa said.
Thompson believes the remedy for the degeneration of languages is clear: teach more languages.
“We shouldn’t assume that English is going to be the only language that people need to know and it’s really important to recognize and study and understand other languages,” Thompson said.
Learning a language is far more than just sitting in a classroom and memorizing vocabulary, though.
“Now more than ever, there are so many new ways to learn a language,” Koran said. “You could download an app, you could Skype with someone, take a class, make friends with people that speak that language.”
Regardless of how people choose to learn a new language, what language they learn, or when they learn it, it may be more crucial than ever to learn one, or maybe two.
“I think we have to study other languages in order to connect to the world,” Spanish Professor Daniel Torres said.
Studying a language isn’t just a matter of memorizing vocabulary, Paladori-Shane said.
“It allows you to appreciate the culture of others, create empathy, value new perspectives, connect the dots around you and become global-minded.” she said.