International Mother Language Day

in Culture/North Africa

International Mother Language Day (IMLD) is a worldwide annual observance held on 21 February, first announced by UNESCO on 17 November 1999, then formally recognized by the United Nations General Assembly in a resolution establishing 2008 as the International Year of Languages. The goal is to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and celebrate multilingualism.

The idea to celebrate International Mother Language Day was an initiative of Bangladesh. In Bangladesh the 21st of February is the day of remembrance of when Bangladeshis fought for the recognition of the Bengali language.

The story of the IMLD is closely linked to the refusal of Pakistani government to recognize the linguistic rights of a number of its citizens, and to announce in 1952 the Urdu language as the only official language of the whole country. Following this announcement, the Movement for the Defense of the Language emerged in protests to demand equality status for Bengali, the majority language in East Pakistan, present-day Bangladesh.

The population of Bangladesh, then the Eastern part of Pakistan, affirmed the discriminatory nature of this language policy which aimed at imposing Urdu as the sole language of access to jobs in the public service, the justice sector, teaching, etc.

Thus,a demonstration is organized in Dhaka (the current capital of Bangladesh) on February 21, 1952 in favor of Bengali. The Pakistani police opened fire on peaceful protesters causing many victims, now known as “martyrs of the language”, in a place where the Bengali Monument came to be erected.

A dozen years later, this movement for the language inspired yet a broader movement which resulted in the independence of East Pakistan in 1971 and the birth of a new country now called Bangladesh. The name of this country is an explicit reference to Bengali,the language of the population that had risen in 1952 against linguistic discrimination.

Therefore, by celebrating 21 February of each year, the international community celebrates a popular uprising based on claims of language rights and invites all countries of the world to adopt language policies more open to multilingualism and more concerned with linguistic and cultural diversity.

In Algeria, mother tongues are totally ignored by the language policy of the government. Algerian Arabic is dismissed, not to say stigmatized and despised. As regards Tamazight, there is currently a debate between the standardization of regional varieties (Kabyle, Chaoui, Mozabite, etc.) and the adoption of a trans-regional standard that would be equivalent to standard Arabic.

Despite the current Education Minister’s attempt to integrate mother tongues into the learning process during the first years of schooling, decision makers still sustain the ‘one- language-only’ strategy when it comes to the question of what to teach in Algerian schools and the place and role of the mother tongue in the learning process.

Algerian children continue to experience an abrupt transition from the mother tongue to the language of schooling along with the pedagogical implications. The general performance of Algerian students in languages has certainly much to do with the existing gap between mother tongues and school language in Algeria.

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