February 21, 2015 will mark the 16th anniversary of International Mother Language Day. The celebration was instituted by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as a way to promote linguistic and cultural diversity.
Why is it important to celebrate your mother language?
For those who speak English as their native language, it may seem odd to focus on the mother language instead of promoting much-needed second-language acquisition. However, for many people throughout the world, the dominant language in a given community has a tendency to displace local minority languages (which, of course, are mother languages more often than not). For example, a person in Peru may speak Quechua in the home, but Spanish is prevalent across the country, and outside opportunities to use Quechua are few. The individual may gradually lose the ability to read and speak Quechua, and, consequently, will not teach the language to his or her children. The pattern repeats from family to family, impacting succeeding generations. Similarly, groups in the United States may suffer the loss of a native language such as Navajo due to a lack of educational resources to support maintenance of the language.
Why is it important to preserve languages?
According to the BBC, a language goes extinct every three months. UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger identifies 576 languages as being critically endangered, with grandparents and older as the youngest speakers of the language. Additionally, there are thousands of other languages that fit into UNESCO’s endangered and threatened language categories. Each time a language ceases to exist, we no longer have access to oral stories and traditions from that language, and particular meanings that can only be conveyed by the words and structure of that language are lost. The death of any language threatens the rich cultural diversity that exists on Earth.
How can I celebrate International Mother Language Day?
Show a little appreciation for your own native language by reading a classic written in your language or learning new vocabulary words to strengthen your command of the language. And if your native language (like English) is in no danger of becoming obsolete, you can help in the effort to preserve minority languages. UNESCO has announced that this year’s theme is “Inclusion in and through education: Language counts.” Speakers of minority languages often have the least access to quality education, particularly because instruction is not offered in their mother tongue. Voice your support at a local level for giving children the opportunity to first learn literacy skills in their native language, which will be transferable to the second, more dominant language. On February 21, take the opportunity to appreciate your own mother tongue and advocate for linguistic diversity throughout the globe.
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