international mother language day south africa

Close-up of an open dictionary. Photo: Envato Elements/aetb

Celebrate linguistic and cultural diversity on International Mother Language Day

International Mother Language Day is celebrated annually on 21 February, as a way to honour the diversity of languages around the world.

international mother language day south africa

Close-up of an open dictionary. Photo: Envato Elements/aetb

The day had been observed in South Africa since 2000, but the roots extend far deeper in history and can be traced back to the deaths of four students in Bengal who campaigned to officially use their mother language, Bengali.

The History of International Mother Tongue Day

In 1947, tensions ran high between the eastern part of India, or East Bengal which later became East Pakistan, and the western region, which remained in India. Due to the lingual conflicts between the two provinces, the Pakistan government declared Urdu as the national language in 1948.

Students at the University of Dhaka staged formed the Langauge Movement and arranged a protest in 1952 to demand the use of their mother language. Police initially used teargas to disperse the students, but the arrest of several students only sparked further protests.

Demonstrators assembled at the East Bengal Legislative Assembly to make their voices heard. They planned to storm into legislature. However, four students perished that day when police open fire on the group of protesters.

Victory at last

Throughout the years, residents campaigned for the right to use their mother tongue, and Bengali became the region’s official language four years later. Tarun Rahman, the editor of The Bangladeshi Identity Project, explained:

“The deaths of these students sparked furore and led to further demonstrations and widespread disorder across the capital over the next few days; adults and working professionals from all walks of life joined the students in protest of Pakistani oppression. A number of additional activists were shot dead — including a 9-year-old boy — by police in those following days. Demonstrations continued for weeks, with beatings and political arrests common.”

The International Mother Language Day as an official celebratory day was approved at the Unesco General Conference in 1999 and has been observed throughout the world since.

international mother language day global south africa
International Mother Language Day celebrating by BAFWWA Golden Eagle Nursery Dhaka. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Fahad Faisal

“Indigenous languages matter for development, peacebuilding and reconciliation”

The theme for International Mother Langauge Day places the emphasis on indigenous languages and the vital role it plays in development, peace-building and reconciliation.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) succinctly sums it up one in one sentence: “When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity.”

In Bangladesh, the day is celebrated with parties and extravagant meals during which the Bengali language and the culture are honoured.

Global citizens are encouraged to not only observe and appreciate their mother tongue, but too learn new languages as well.

Languages in South Africa

We have 11 official languages in South Africa with South African English being the de facto primary language:

  • Afrikaans,
  • IsiNdebele,
  • SeSotho sa Leboa,
  • SeSotho sa Borwa,
  • SiSwati, XiTsonga,
  • SeTswana,
  • TshiVenḓa,
  • IsiXhosa,
  • IsiZulu,
  • South African Sign Language

Unofficial languages spoken in the country include:

  • SiPhuthi,
  • SiHlubi,
  • SiBhaca,
  • SiLala,
  • SiNhlangwini (“IsiZansi”),
  • SiNrebele (SiSumayela),
  • IsiMpondro,
  • Khoekhoegowab,
  • !Orakobab,
  • Xirikobab,
  • N|uuki,
  • !Xunthali,
  • Khwedam,
  • KheLobedu,
  • SePulana,
  • HiPai,
  • SeKutswe,
  • SeṰokwa,
  • SiThonga,
  • SiLaNgomane,
  • SheKgalagari,
  • XiRonga

According to a 2011 census, Zuli is spoken by approximately 22.7% (roughly 11m) of the population, followed by 16% for Xhosa and 13.5% for Afrikaans.

While most South Africans are multilingual and speak on average between five to eight languages, English and Afrikaans people tend to speak only one or two languages, with a very small percentage fluent in an indigenous language.

International Mother Language Day gives us the perfect opportunity to start learning a new language. No more excuses.