International Mother Language Day 2015

International Mother Language Day 2015


My mother spoke Welsh. My parents believed, at the time, that Welsh was a dying language and English was the only future for us -so we did not speak Welsh at home.

Now Welsh is flourishing -a Welsh TV channel, pop groups proud to sing in Welsh -it is certainly living. My despair is that I did not grow up bilngual, and that my neural networks were not enhanced at an  early age by learning two languages.

So I understand the importance of ‘Mother Language Day’.

I have been working in Tanzania, where 77% of 6 year old children in the 7 regions in which we work, do not speak Kiswahili at home yet join Standard 1 primary where everything is being taught in Kiswahili. Is it no surprise that when tested at standard 3 they underachieve in maths and Kiswahili compared those who speak Kiswahili at home?Teachers are not trained to deal with those children who do not speak the language of instruction at home. So ‘inclusion’ is a key word and is the theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day.




International Mother Language Day, observed since 1999 on 21 February, honours the world’s abundant cultural and linguistic diversity. The celebration draws attention to the significance of pluri-lingualism and the need for language preservation. For example, UNESCO’s Interactive Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger categorises more than 2000 languages along various levels of endangerment.

Photo: Zinat Rehana/ UNESCO EFA Report

This year’s special theme is inclusion in and through education: language counts. During celebrations for the International Mother Language Day at UNESCO, yesterday, attention focused on the role of mother language as a factor of inclusion in the post-2015 sustainable development agenda.

While most countries are bi- or multilingual, education is generally taught in the dominant or national language. Today, minorities repeatedly become marginalised and isolated because of linguistic barriers. These communities are socially, economically, and politically excluded, and if they are able to attend school, are likely to perform poorly on assessments and often eventually drop out. Not only does this impede children’s chances of succeeding but it exacerbates social inequality and reduces citizenship participation.

The EFA movement has long promoted bilingual education to ensure quality of education. The upcoming 2015 EFA Global Monitoring Report, which takes a comprehensive look at the progress countries have made towards achieving the six EFA goals, will address the significant role that maternal languages play in improving the quality of education and diminishing illiteracy among children, youth and adults. Many of the problems in these areas stem from large communities being discouraged from participating in educational programmes because their spoken tongues are disregarded or considered inferior. To address this issue, governments are implementing effective policies to preserve and protect dialects, as well as to ensure that every citizen have access to education in their native language. As a matter of fact, there is a global trend of recognising minority languages as part of a country’s cultural make-up and even giving them official statuses can considerably change people’s experiences and attitudes in education.

To combat adult illiteracy, language recognition was a key strategy. According to a 2010 census, Mexico’s indigenous languages were spoken by about 6.6 million people, which accounted for 6.5% of the population. In 2000, the government launched a programme, Modelo Educación para la Vida y el Trabajo, with an initiative to incorporate representatives of minority language groups in educational initiatives. The government’s efforts to identify the importance of the range of languages spoken in Mexico and their quotidian practice led to usage of 45 languages in learning and teaching literacy. This method reduced the level of illiteracy in Mexico from 4.7 % in 2006 to 3.5% by 2015.

At the school level, language often interacts with culture and poverty, increasing the risk of children being left behind. Among poor rural grade 6 students in Guatemala who speak a minority (usually indigenous) language at home, only 47% reach the minimum achievement level in mathematics, but 88% of rich urban students speaking Spanish reach that level (Altinok, 2013b). Disadvantage associated with language and poverty continues into secondary school. New analysis by the EFA Report shows that in Turkey, 15-year-olds speaking a non-Turkish language, predominantly Kurdish, were among the lowest performers in the PISA 2012 assessment: around 50% of poor non-Turkish speakers achieved minimum learning benchmarks in reading, against the national average of 80%.

Since dialects are important to society because they enhance diversity, conserve traditions and amplify countries’ rich cultural backgrounds and it is imperative to offer opportunities for the youngest. For example, the ‘language nest model’ early childhood program in New Zealand allows Maori children to retain their customs by using their ancestral language in interaction with the elders in their community.

UNESCO states that “appropriate language education is fundamental to enable learners to benefit from quality education, learn thorough life, and have access to information”. During the celebration of the international mother language day, UNESCO reaffirmed the crucial necessity of mother tongue instruction to enhance global citizenship, a key target for the post-2015 agenda that aims to encourage every child, teenager and adult to act locally and globally for a sustainable, peaceful and inclusive society.


From Cultural Survival

an example of suggested actions you can take

Celebrate the power of dreams and meet the nearly twenty year-old Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project, which is “bringing language home” to the Wampanoag Nation of southeastern Massachusetts after many generations passed without fluent speakers.  Order copies of the film for personal, institutional, or activist use at Makepeace Productions, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting WLRP.
Be inclusive – respect the diversity of languages.

4 Replies to “International Mother Language Day 2015”

  1. Did you design the “two faces” poster yourself? I’d love to get hold of a much larger size to print out for a celebration of International Mother Language Day at my school. Is that possible?

    1. Hi Frankie,
      I wish I had, but I downloaded this from the UNESCO site.
      I am sure they would be than happy for you to use it.
      I will try and track down the link, then you can acknowledge them

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