Celebrating multilingual education on UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day

On Tuesday, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) celebrated International Mother Language Day with a series of panels on multilingual education.

UNESCO declared Feb. 21 to be International Mother Language Day back in November 1999, celebrating the first one in 2000 as an effort to promote and shine light on linguistic diversity and preservation. The theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day was “Multilingual education — a necessity to transform education,” emphasizing the role education can have in fostering multilingual communities and encouraging members to use their native tongue.

“Today, four people out of ten around the world do not have access to education in the language that they speak or understand,” said Stefania Giannini, an Italian linguist and politician currently serving as UNESCO’s assistant-director general for education in an opening address to attendees at the organization’s celebration event. “Celebration of the International Mother Language Day is a crucial moment to advocate for and support multilingualism and multilingual education that is mother-tongue-based.”

In the concept notes for the event, UNESCO noted that many multilingual communities across the world fail to embrace multilingualism in the classroom, discouraging some students from using their mother tongue. Speakers at Tuesday’s event discussed topics like multilingual education’s potential to combat gender inequity and its importance in countries facing an influx of refugees.

In her opening address, Giannini continued: “My question today is the following: How can one learn in a way that is meaningful when they do not understand the language that the teacher or what the school textbooks say? It’s a paradox, but this paradox is very frequent in classrooms around the world.”

This year also marks the second International Mother Language Day during UNESCO’s International Decade of Indigenous Languages, which it kicked off at the beginning of last year. Although this is only the 24th worldwide celebration of Mother Language Day, it’s actually got roots that run much deeper than UNESCO’s 1999 declaration. 

The push for UNESCO to recognize Feb. 21 was initially proposed by Bangladesh, to honor protesters killed in Dhakar on Feb. 21, 1952. The protesters were advocates for the Bengali language movement, an effort to gain official recognition for the Bengali language and script in the country, which was ruled by Pakistan up until its independence in the early 1970s.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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