Wed | Feb 19, 2020

Letter of the Day | No shame in speaking in one’s mother tongue

Published:Friday | February 22, 2019 | 12:16 AM


Since 2000, the international community has been celebrating International Mother Language Day on February 21. The observation of the day was an initiative of Bangladesh and was facilitated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The significance of the day is rooted in the need to promote linguistic and cultural multiplicity.

According to UNESCO, linguistic diversity is increasingly being threatened as more and more languages disappear. Disturbingly, 40 per cent of the global population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand.

Interestingly, the theme for this year’s International Mother Language Day is ‘Indigenous Language as a Factor of Development, Peace and Reconciliation’. This year’s theme coincides with the fact the United Nations has designated 2019 the International Year of Indigenous Languages.

UNESCO reports that indigenous peoples number some 370 million and their languages account for the majority of the approximately 7,000 living languages on the planet. We live in a society and indeed a world in which speakers of the mother language, or native tongue, are often made to feel less than.



Sadly, such individuals are oftentimes marginalised and discriminated against. This feeling of inferiority, which many indigenous people experience, is clearly related to a cultural imperialist ideology in which those who wield power in the society try to control the minds of the majority by forcing them to think that there is little or no value in them speaking in their mother language.


This linguistic power play in society is obviously a violation of human rights, since speakers of the mother language are sometimes denied some services due to a fear of being ridiculed or laughed at. This is problematic, and we need to move to resolve this urgently. As a result of this ongoing language discrimination, indigenous peoples are locked in a vicious cycle of poverty.


Why do we continue to use language as an indicator of one’s social status? One’s language should be viewed as a liberating tool instead of a vehicle of oppression. The way forward must involve the State reinforcing that there is no shame in speaking in one’s native or mother language.

Linguistic Diversity



We need to foster a culture in which linguistic diversity and multilingualism are appreciated and valued. We need to place social currency on our mother language and afford it the space it deserves.


Any society which excludes a subset of the population on the grounds of language cannot have sustainable development and peace.


Let us remember the work of our own folklorist Miss Lou and work towards achieving an inclusive society in which speakers of the mother language, or native tongue, are respected and made to feel a sense of belonging.


In the words of Toni Morrison: “We die; that may be the meaning of life. But we do language; that may be the measure of our lives.”