February 21st is considered as the International Mother Language Day. It is a day to celebrate one’s mother language, and also the linguistic and cultural diversity that exists on this planet. As a Bangladeshi expat who seldom gets the chance to converse in his mother language, I take time on this day to think about what Bengali means to me, and what it enables me to do. Bengali is not just the language I feel most comfortable speaking, but it is also the language of my dreams and of my cultural narrative. The story behind why February 21st is regarded as the Mother Language Day is closely related to the story of Bangladesh.
With the partition of India in 1947, the Indian subcontinent was divided along religious lines – majority-Hindu India in the middle with majority-Muslim West Pakistan and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) on either side. In 1948, the Government of the Dominion of Pakistan ordained Urdu as the sole national language, sparking extensive protests among the Bengali-speaking majority of East Pakistan. The Pakistani government was staunch on maintaining one religion (Islam), one language (Urdu) and was determined to suffocate the Bengali culture and heritage.
The Bengali Language Movement (Bengali: ভাষা আন্দোলন), was a political movement in what is now Bangladesh, advocating the recognition of Bengali as the official language in government affairs, use as a medium of education, use in media, currency and to maintain its writing in the Bengali script. In the face of rising tension, the Pakistani government banned all public meetings and rallies. It was on February 21st 1952, that political activists and students of the University of Dhaka defied the law and organized a protest. The Pakistani army opened fire, and in process killed countless many students. The events of that day served only to add fuel to the language movement. Over the next four years Bengalis protested relentlessly for their rights. This is the first and only time in the history of humanity that a population organized to demand the right to use a language. After years of struggle, the Pakistani government relented and granted Bengali the official status in 1956. Many lost their lives in this struggle, and the mode in Bangladesh on this day is one of somber pride. In 1999, UNESCO declared February 21st as the International Mother Language Day, in tribute to the Bengali Language Movement and the ethno-linguistic rights of people around the world.
One’s mother language is ingrained in his/her cultural identity and history. As we celebrate our mother language, let’s also recognize that there are over 6 thousand languages in the world, each of which is someone’s mother language. Let’s also recognize that 50% of these languages are dying. As a language dies, a society’s history and cultures dies with it. Every human being deserves the right to use their mother language, and to take pride in it as we do. You can learn more about Endangered Languages here. Also, please consider making a donation to Living Tongues, an organization that works to document endangered languages.