On the 21st of February, we celebrate International Mother Language Day. It is an annual UNESCO event held to promote and celebrate linguistic diversity. A mother language, or mother tongue, is the first language children learn and use at home.
It was first observed in 2000, as a tribute to the Bangladeshi Language Movement many years prior. The people of Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) took action against the government for suppressing Bengali and instead naming Urdu as the sole national language in 1947.
The 2021 theme for the day is “fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society”. Language is an important part of intangible cultural heritage, and when we recognise the value of different languages, we open ourselves up to other cultures – and, consequently, new ideas, values and mindsets.
We are both native English speakers living in the UK, so we recognise that both in society and in the workplace, our mother language is recognised and seen as the default shared language. We asked our friends what they celebrate about their mother languages:
“My mother tongue is important because it’s the language I was born with. As a Muslim it’s important because the Quran is in Arabic. I have pride in it because it’s beautiful. It’s a connection to my roots and predecessors.”
“I love how easily hearing or reading certain expressions that I would have almost forgotten about can make me feel nostalgic (and also a little home sick too). It takes me back to times when I still lived there [Hungary]”
“I am Chinese and my mother tongue is Mandarin. For me, I think the uniqueness of Chinese lies in its handwriting where both beauty and strength can coexist.”
Language use in the UK charity sector is a conversation that can be taken from many different angles, for example the stigmatisation of certain languages and dialects. There is an expectation to speak in Standard English as it is the ‘most professional’ language and dominates other ways of speaking in the workplace. In addition, the use of jargon and acronyms that leave more confused, especially new employees like us! There is a growing multicultural environment in charities in both the workplace and the communities that charities partner with. Embracing multilingualism and fostering a culture of cultural learning is becoming even more necessary.
“Speaking Urdu enables me to never forget my Pakistani heritage, which will always remain an integral part of my identity, regardless of my geographical location.”
Generally, native English speakers in the UK don’t seem to value learning foreign languages, despite the fact that, as of 2012, 7.5 million of the UK’s residents hail from other countries and cultures. There are many languages other than English spoken in the UK (such as Scots, Welsh, Punjabi, Bengali, Urdu, Polish etc), and yet only 35% of 25-64 year olds would say that they can speak another language – most people in the world are at least bilingual.
“The proverbs that are intertwined in everyday use make the [Lugandan] language so rich and lovable! Those who do not understand the proverbs then get to learn the meaning and the contexts in which these can be applied”
“My mother tongue is lugwere. I love it because it has some ‘sounds’ which are unique to it…they add flavour to the language and are fun”
Caring about the culture and language of our friends or colleagues from different nations creates trust in the relationships. If language is culture and culture is language, then learning another language(s) is an important step forward. The importance of mother tongues and continuing to educate ourselves helps “to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue.” That’s something we’re keen to see continue and we know you do too.
As you see through our friends’ experiences, their mother tongue is important to them, reminding them of home, their heritage and the beauty of their culture. By learning about other languages and the culture connected, our lives are deeply enriched and how we see the world is widened.
Anna: To work in an INGO, knowing different languages is vital, especially as INGOs are decentralising and relocating their offices which had previously been based in the West – like Oxfam International moving to Nairobi, Kenya and Action Aid to Johannesburg amongst others. Language needs, especially in translation services, are rising even more – or some could say the needs are finally more recognised.
Alice: For housing associations, making sure that our services are accessible for all language needs is crucial in helping tenants sustain their tenancies. Multilingualism is, unfortunately, something that appears to be lacking in the way that we communicate with our tenants. As with the rest of the non-profit sector, we also need more diversity in the employees.
You can benefit hugely by learning another language as you get to understand and learn the richness of the culture as well. Not just as a tick-box ‘here’s something good to put on my CV’ but in order to create trusted relationships with communities you partner with (UK or globally), and to realise that the history of organisations asking people to speak and conform to speaking in “Standard English” comes to the detriment of a multicultural and diverse set of thinking, ideas, societal beliefs and values.
Alice: I studied Modern Foreign Languages and Linguistics at university (Spanish, French and Japanese) so I had an amazing opportunity to dive into a wealthy variety of cultures and ways of life. I was lucky enough to be able to live in Japan as part of my course, which exposed me to a culture centred on the group as opposed to the individual. It sounds cringey, but I genuinely started to see the world in a different way.
Are all your friends native English speakers? How regularly do you learn about a different culture or watch a programme in a different language? There are easy steps to start to learn and embrace different languages without having to commit 4 years of language learning.
Remember, this day is a celebration. Celebrate your mother language and join the celebration for other peoples’ mother languages!
So hopefully this post was interesting and informative, and has shed some light on the importance of multilingualism in our society. We also hope that you will be celebrating Mother Language Day on the 21st of Feb!
By Anna Wooding and Alice Varley, Graduate Trainees at Christian Aid and VIVID Housing respectively