Feb 212016


International Mother Language Day (IMLD) (Bengali: আন্তর্জাতিক মাতৃভাষা দিবস Antôrjatik Matribhasha Dibôs) is a worldwide annual observance held on this date to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. First announced by UNESCO on 17 November 1999, it was formally recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in its resolution establishing 2008 as the International Year of Languages.

The date of International Mother Language Day corresponds to the day in 1952 when students from the University of Dhaka, Jagannath University and Dhaka Medical College, demonstrating for the recognition of Bangla (Bengali) as one of the two national languages of East Pakistan, were shot dead by police near the Dhaka High Court in the capital of present-day Bangladesh. (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/bangladesh-independence/ )


“Mother language” is the English calque (loan translation) of a term used in several Romance languages: lengua materna (Spanish), lingua madre (Italian) and langue maternelle (French). A more fluent English translation would be “mother tongue,” although “native language” is the more common term in English. In historical linguistics, the English term “mother language” refers to an ancestral (or proto-language) of a language family. Calque is a loanword from a French noun, and derives from the verb calquer (to trace, to copy). The word “loanword” is a calque of the German word Lehnwort, just as “loan translation” is a calque of Lehnübersetzung. A calque is a word or phrase borrowed from another language by literal, word-for-word or root-for-root translation.

International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November 1999 (30C/62). On 16 May 2009 the United Nations General Assembly, in its resolution A/RES/61/266, called on its member states “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world.” In the resolution, the General Assembly proclaimed 2008 as the International Year of Languages to promote unity in diversity and international understanding through multilingualism and multiculturalism. The UN made the following declaration:

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.

As an anthropologist, world traveler, and teacher of English as a foreign language, this is a subject dear to my heart. Language is the soul of a culture. When a language dies, a whole culture dies with it. How many languages in history have been lost to hegemony and imperialism? I’ve mentioned many here in my posts, such as Cornish and Norn. There are obvious instances where you want everyone speaking the same language. When I’m flying I want the pilot, other pilots in the vicinity, and people in the control tower to be speaking the same language. But such instances are very rare, and only come about because of modern technology. For the most part we should celebrate and encourage diversity and multiculturalism, not attempt to destroy it by homogenizing the world.

There is no doubt that monolingualism has its conveniences for a country. It’s cheaper and simpler to print official documents, conduct business etc. in one language, but this convenience comes at a heavy cost. If you look at the natural world you see that vigor and adaptability derive from diversity. A species may thrive in one environment, but if it lacks genetic diversity it will die out when the environment changes. Cultural diversity is just as, if not more, important.

Promoting the language of the dominant culture to the exclusion of all others has for centuries been a form of social control. The English outlawed Irish in Ireland. The Chinese are currently mandating Mandarin in Hong Kong schools and discouraging Cantonese. Stalin insisted on Russian being spoken throughout the Soviet Union. And so it goes . . . On occasion the “English only” drumbeat sounds loudly in the United States, even though the peoples who speak Cherokee, Keresan, Hopi, and even Spanish, have occupied parts of the national territory a lot longer than native English speakers.


Once I attended a cultural event at a football stadium in Yoshkar-Ola, the administrative capital of Mari El, an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation. The event was conducted in Mari only and was seen as a deep threat to the Russian dominated government. The stadium was ringed by Russian soldiers with tanks and automatic rifles, and a banner hung over the stadium proclaiming in Russian, “A united Russia is a strong Russia.” All that the people inside were doing was talking, cracking jokes, and singing in Mari. There were no political speeches or the like. Yet the Russian government was afraid.

I know all too well what it’s like to live in a country where I cannot speak the language and be surrounded by incomprehensible sounds. I’m doing it right now. All I can say to the fearful is “get over it.” The world is a breathtaking kaleidoscope. Don’t contribute to its destruction.

Not only do I try to speak local languages as best I can, I also love to cook and eat local foods. My first “recipe” suggestion would be to go out and eat at a restaurant from an unfamiliar culture. Meanwhile here’s a gallery of pictures from a lecture I gave in China called “Strange Foods.” You’ll see a few familiar friends such as tripe and haggis, and a few not so familiar such as bat soup and chocolate covered spiders – not to mention a range of foods from the insect world including eggs and larvae. My point is that someone, somewhere in the world laps these things up. When I came to the picture of dragonfly soup in my lecture, one person in the class said “my family eats that”!! This same person was disgusted by cheese – who wants to eat rotten milk? Maybe I’ll run out now to the local market to get some horse meat for Sunday lunch.

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Tamasin Day Lewis. Cork English Market. Stephen O'Reily's Tripe & Drisheen stall, Honeycombe tripe.

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