International Mother Language Day


The 21rst of February is the day we share ways on how to support “mother languages” in our community.
I personally would prefer the term of “home” or “family languages” as the term of “mother language” is not including all language situations in families. It should at least include “father language”, and ideally all other languages that are fostered at home.

Some background information about the International Mother Language Day

Since 2000 the International Mother Language Day is celebrated worldwide on the 21 February in remembrance of the 21 February 1952, when “students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bengali, as one of the two national languages of the then Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka”, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.

The Mother Language Day was proclaimed on 17 November 1999 by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) (30C/62).

On the 16th of May 2007, the United Nations General Assembly called upon Member States “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world” in its resolution A/RES/61/266. By the same resolution, the General Assembly proclaimed to promote unity in diversity and international understanding, through multilingualism and multiculturalism.

  • Languages ensure access to knowledge and permit its transmission and its plurality. Local languages are perfectly capable to transmit the most scientific knowledge in mathematics, physics, technology etc., therefore, recognizing these languages opens “the door to a great deal of often overlooked traditional scientific knowledge to enrich our overall knowledge base… Excluding languages means excluding those who speak them from their fundamental human right to scientific knowledge“.
  • Languages shape minds in the broadest sense.
  • They help building global citizenships.
  • Intercultural understanding is only possible through language and dialogue. “In today’s world, the norm is to use at least three languages, including one local language, one language of wider communication and one international language to communicate at both the local and global levels. – Linguistic and cultural diversity are our best chance for the future: for creativity, innovation and inclusion”.

Speaking one’s mother language is still not something we all can take for granted, especially in places where local mother tongues are threatened by more dominant languages.

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The following video was produced by the UNESCO Liaison Office in New York in 2010, on the occasion of the International Mother Language Day, to raise awareness on the importance on languages today.

“Linguistic diversity is under threat. More than the half of the 7000 languages spoken in the world may die out over the next few generations. This loss not only erodes individual communities and cultures, but more broadly the very make up (?) of our society” (Irina Bokova UNESCO Director General (0:00-0:37)

“We focus on multilingualism as a way to preserve our valuable linguistic inheritance” (1:22)

If languages do not exist, cultures disappear” (1:26)

Part of our identity is the language that we speak” (1:41)

 “Children who learn their mother language do better in school. Literacy progress in mother languages bring learners the self confidence that they need to participate in their communities and make informed choices” (2:30-38).

96 % of these languages are spoken by a mere 4 % of the world’s population. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given pride of place in education systems and the public domain, and less than a hundred are used in the digital world.

Less than a quarter of all languages in the world are used in educational and cyber space. This is why we have to assist governments in both safeguarding linguistic diversity and promoting multilingual competences” Irina Bokova UNESCO Director General (4:08-4:23).

Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.

—from the United Nations International Mother Language Day microsite

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2019

The message from Ms Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO says on occasion of International Mother Language Day,

“Indigenous peoples have always expressed their desire for education in their own languages, as set out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Since 2019 is the International Year of Indigenous Languages, the theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day will be indigenous languages as a factor in development, peace and reconciliation.

Indigenous peoples number some 370 million and their languages account for the majority of the approximately 7,000 living languages on Earth. Many indigenous peoples continue to suffer from marginalization, discrimination and extreme poverty and are the victims of human-rights violations (…). On this International Mother Language Day, I thus invite all UNESCO Member States, our partners and education stakeholders to recognize and enforce the rights of indigenous peoples.” 

The topic of this year focuses on the indigenous languages that are minoritized by a more international or dominant language. These local languages transmit cultures, values and traditional knowledge. 

In March 2013, Rita Izsák, UN Independent Expert on minority issues, said that “protection of linguistic minority rights is a human rights obligation and an essential component of good governance, efforts to prevent tensions and conflict, and the construction of equal and politically and socially stable societies“.

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No matter where we live, our children should have the opportunity to acquire, learn and master their first languages – or mother/father tongues – not only in speech but also in reading and writing. If we don’t get support by the community, school etc., we, parents, caregivers etc. want to make sure our children use our language the best they can.

Language is not only a means of communication but it is the most powerful instrument of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage.

Like for all “special days”, my personal wish is that in the very near future we won’t need to celebrate any International Mother Language Day anymore, because all languages will get recognized and fostered every day of the year. 

I am aware that this is still wishful thinking, therefore I invite you to start with speaking (reading and writing) your languages today

And as it is all about finding ways to support our home languages today, here are my tips on how to help our teenagers bilingualism and biculturalism:

  • bear in mind that teenagers rate peers higher than parents!
  • foster social networking: chatting via webcams is a great way to keep the other language alive. It is a great alternative to Saturday schools or parents teaching these languages at home!
  • be open minded when it comes to slang (and swearwords!). While growing up abroad, bilinguals will use the language in an “artificial context”. Allowing your child to use the slang their monolingual peers use, will help them fit in easier once you visit the country.
  • help them find resources to have access to the local slang.
  • make sure they know about the habits and values of peers in the other culture.
  • travel as often as you can to different places of your family languages and offer them opportunities to meet peers (by enrolling them in some local activities they like).
  • if you can’t travel that often and provide full language immersion, look out to other families that speak the same language where you live.
  • find penpals for your children – using social media may also be an option, but if you would like your children to improve their written skills in the other language(s), writing in the “old fashioned way” is advisable.

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The theme of the IMLD in 2021 is “Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society“, recognizes that languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion, and the Sustainable Development Goals’ focus on leaving no one behind. UNESCO believes education, based on the first language or mother tongue, must begin from the early years as early childhood care and education is the foundation of learning. (UNESCO website of the day)

Please find more information in the folder for the IMLD 2021 here

During the webinar held on the 19 February 2021, Prof. Gilvan Müller de Oliveira expressed what I guess we all aim for, that the UN adds the Access to and production of socially relevant knowledge in all languages as the 18th of the Sustainable Development Goals:


If you want to participate in the celebration of this day, have a look at the UNESCO.org website.

Ana Elisa Miranda and I are happy to contribute to celebrating all our home languages by offering our Toolbox for Multilingual Families for free on amazon from 20.-21.2.2021.


– Please share your thoughts and the way you celebrate or support your languages today in the comments.

European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages

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