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The Spirit of 21st February

Multilinguistic diversity

Published : Thursday, 15 February, 2018 at 12:00 AM Count : 134
Imrul Hoque

"If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart,"- this quote by Nelson Mandela shows the inherent nature of mother language that satisfies our heart. Coercion to study in the globally dominant language instead of one's mother tongue impedes the smooth flow of thoughts, the objective of education and the survival of heritage.
When Pakistan authority threatened to bulldoze Bangla from the state level, the valiant language warriors resented it and retaliated. Their civil disobedience, defying section 144 of the then Pakistan government, resulted in a mass shooting on 21st February, 1952.
UNESCO unanimously decided to commemorate this event as International Mother Language Day in 1999. UNESCO has delineated the theme of this day for 2018: Linguistic diversity and multilingualism count for sustainable development.
In fact, this day is the eternal fountain of inspiration for enhancing multilingualism and multiculturalism throughout the world and protecting endangered languages from extinction. Protecting a language from inevitable demise is the spirit of 21st February. When a language dies out, its history, culture, tradition and heritage also pass into oblivion.
Currently, there are almost seven thousand different languages in the world, according to an estimate by Ethnologue. Disappointingly, more than half of those languages might vanish by the end of twenty-first century for the dearth of speakers, according to linguist experts. Asymmetric demographic language distribution substantiates this fact.
Language distribution reverberates with wealth inequality. The richest 1 per cent people of this globe have accumulated more than half of world's wealth. On the other hand, 3.5 billion of the world's poorest adults, making up 70 per cent of the global working age population, possess only 2.7 per cent of global wealth.
Similarly, almost half the world's population speaks one of only twenty certain languages. An estimated per cent of all languages (roughly 350) account for 94 per cent of the global population, implying that the remaining 95 per cent of languages are spoken by only 6 per cent of the population.
The condition of linguistic diversity is moribund in Bangladesh. Almost 1.6 million tribal people from twenty-seven ethnic groups speak in more than thirty languages, according to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. Gradually, increasing pressure of Bangla and lack of textbooks in their respective languages make the situation worse. As a result, at least fifteen languages are now on the verge of extinction, ranging at varying level from definitely endangered to critically endangered.
The spirit of International Mother Language Day once again reminds us to safeguard our multilinguistic and cultural diversity. Therefore, introducing bilingual medium of education can substantially help the tribal languages sustain themselves. Publishing textbooks in these languages and training the teachers accordingly is necessary.  If our negligence drives the languages into extinction, it would be a gross injustice to the people who speak them.
On this regard, Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong'o is quite relevant. Understating the importance of mother language, he abandoned English and devoted himself to writing in his native language Gikuyi. He remarked in his book Decolonizing the Mind, "In my view, language was the most important vehicle through which power captured and held the soul prisoner. The bullet was the means of physical subjugation. Language was the means of spiritual subjugation."
Therefore, it will be irresponsible to be spiritually shackled like this. We should learn foreign language, but it should not be at the cost of our own language.
In a lecture series hosted by the University of Cape Town, Ngugi wa Thiong'o said, "If you know all the languages of the world but not your mother tongue; that is enslavement. Knowing your mother tongue and all other languages too is empowerment." It is but our own decision and discretion whether we are willing to be enslaved or empowered.

The writer is studying at Department
of Economics, University of Dhaka

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