International Mother Language Day: A Celebration of the World’s Language Diversity

Written by Graciella Ganadhi, Content Writer Project Child Indonesia

Every one of us uses language to communicate with each other. Some of us might speak only one language, or some might be bilingual or even multilingual. No matter which group we belong to, we all have a mother language. According to the Great Dictionary of the Indonesian Language of the Language Center (KBBI), mother language is “the first language that is mastered by a person since birth through the reoccurring interaction with his/her language community.”

Even so, every two weeks, a language disappeared. Why? The answer is simple enough: globalization. The rapid growth of the world has blurred the border between communities. Languages, cultures, and traditions became mixed. Some flourish while some have to wither and eventually die. Languages that often are used in politics and business, such as English, Spanish, and Mandarin, will continue to attract new learners and speakers. Graphic shows that more than 43% of the estimated 6000 languages in the world are on the brink of extinction due to a lack of speakers. The disappearance of a language means a loss of memory, culture, and tradition that might as well be an opportunity and intellectual heritage for people of the world.

The United Nations declared February 21st as International Mother Language Day in hope of preserving the worlds’ languages and promoting linguistic and cultural diversity.

A Bangladeshi-born Canadian, Rafiqul Islam, presented the idea in 1998. He wrote to the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, urging the United Nations to pay attention to the continuous extinction of mother languages all over the world and to take concrete actions to overcome the issue. The date was suggested and then chosen to commemorate four young students who were shot by the police in 1952 during the Bengali Language Movement that took place in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Indonesia is known for its richness in culture and language. There are over 652 vernacular languages spoken all around Indonesia. Most children in Indonesia grow up speaking more than one language. Indonesian households typically have two or more languages spoken among the members. For example, children that grow up in Java and have Javanese parents are likely to have Javanese as their mother language and acquiring Indonesian later on at formal education. Albeit that, Ethnologue, a web-based statistical database of world languages, mentions that 138 Indonesian vernacular languages have been labeled as threatened, nearly extinct, and extinct. Most of the Indonesian vernacular languages don’t have the same privilege as Javanese, Sundanese, or Balinese. Lack of speakers and the decrease of interested learners are likely to be a possible reason.

International Mother Language Day serves to celebrate and honor differences between the world languages and to promote cultural, linguistic diversity and multilingualism. A multicultural and multilingual community creates a more tolerant society. Preserving languages and linguistic diversity mean preserving culture and tradition, the very same things that shape who we are as a person. It is our utmost duty to carry out this initiative, if not for us, then for the future of the world.