Today (February 21, 2006) in Dhaka, Bangladesh, thousands paid homage to the students who were killed for their mother tongue. On this day in 1952, police opened fire on students of Dhaka University who were demonstrating for the recognition of Bengali as a state language of Pakistan. The sheer power of language is evident in that tragic scene.
In honor of the cause for that sacrifice, in 1999, UNESCO declared this date International Mother Language Day. As the UN site states: “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.”
According to the UNESCO site, the 2006 day is devoted to the topic of languages and cyberspace. I’m not quite sure how we are to observe it. We have already missed the solemn observance in Dhaka. Some might suggest lifting a glass in an appropriate toast. We can at least pause—amid all the words that meet our eyes and ears—and take a moment to remember the gift of a mother tongue and the many people around the world who have fought to retain theirs.