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International Mother Language Day

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Authored by Nishah Malik
Published on 21st February, 2022 3 min read

International Mother Language Day

A poster for International Mother Language Day.

“Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage” - United Nations

The 21st February marks International Mother Language Day. The annual observance, first declared in 1999, promotes awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and not only promotes multilingualism, but also multiculturism. The day recognises that languages can advance inclusion, therefore the United Nations believe “multilingual education based on mother tongue is a key component of inclusion in education”. 

The incentives behind this international day has a rich cultural history; the day in fact serves as a commemoration to the Bengali Language Movement of 1952. The Bengali Language Movement was a political movement in the mid-20th century that advocated for the recognition of the Bengali language. The movement has since become an inspirational aspect of Bangladeshi heritage and culture. When Pakistan was created in 1947 it consisted of East Pakistan, present day Bangladesh and West Pakistan, present day Pakistan. The two areas were not just geographically distant, but was also vastly different in terms of culture and language. 

In 1948, the Government of Pakistan declared that Urdu was the sole national language, despite the fact Bengali or Bangla was spoken by the majority in East Pakistan. This decision sparked a great deal of outrage in East Pakistan and many protested for Bangla to also be added as a national language. The students at the University of Daka arranged a large protest on 21st February 1952. This protest turned violent when the police opened fire and many students including, Abdus Salam, Abul Barkat and Rafiq Uddin Ahmed, were killed. Subsequently, the deaths provoked widespread civil unrest and after many more years of protests the Bengali language was granted official status in 1956. These events were the catalysts of Bengali national identity and arguably became the forerunner for the Bengali nationalist movements. 

The language movement is not just a historical political movement, but the events on 21st February 1952 just goes to show the very importance of language and the continuation of traditional languages to the extent people sacrificed their life for their mother tongue. International Mother Language Day serves as a reminder of the Bengali Language Movement. 

Languages are much more than a means of communication, ones mother tongue reveals your individual identity, as well as your cultural identity and traditions. Language remains the prime instrument to preserve identity. However, unfortunately, due to globalisation at least 43% of languages are under threat of disappearing. This is due to the fact only a couple hundred languages are taught within education systems and also the progression of the digital world has meant that less than 100 languages are used online. 

Language is at the heart of cultural diversity, how ones language is perceived in a different country can reveal a lot about multiculturism. If a language disappears then its rich history and cultural heritage vanish too. International Mother Language Day is about promoting the preservation of all languages and growing awareness that languages play an important role in intercultural dialogue and cultural diversity. 

Authored by Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik is Collections Editor at British Online Archives. Nishah gained a Masters in History from the University of Derby in 2020. Her research interests centre around South Asian culture and heritage, as well as the history and experiences of the South Asian diaspora. She also has a keen interest in women's history.

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Notable Days


The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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