The International Mother Language Day promotes awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, multilingualism, and the respect of all native languages.
For this occasion, I would like to talk about something that is a bit more personal than usual: not really knowing what one’s mother language is or even questioning if you have one.
But first, where does the International Mother Language Day come from?
It has its roots in the Language Movement. This movement advocated for the recognition of the Bengali language as an official language in the, then, Dominion of Pakistan, from government affairs to education, currency, and stamps.
In 1948, the Dominion of Pakistan Government established Urdu as the only national language, leading to protests around the country that were later outlawed. When, in spite of the outlaw, a group of students organized a protest on February 21st, 1952, it resulted in violence from the national government. National and international outrage and years of conflict finally led to Bengali becoming an official language in 1956.
In 1999, to honor linguistic freedom, the UNESCO made of the 21 of February the International Mother Language Day.
Perhaps mother tongue doesn’t have the same meaning for everyone
According to the Oxford dictionary, mother tongue is “the language which a person has grown up speaking from early childhood”. If we stick to this definition, I have none or I used to have one and I lost it.
To give you a bit of background, I was born in Switzerland to a Japanese mother and a Dutch father. My parents spoke in English to each other, my mother would talk in Japanese to me, my father in French and I would speak in French to both. At 11, we moved to Spain and I switched to Spanish, at school, and at home.
In practice, it meant we had our own language. It also meant that I didn’t have a mother tongue. I do not speak Dutch and my Japanese is poor. It didn’t feel like a problem until my new friends at school would ask me about it. I would answer it was French: they couldn’t judge. But the truth was I was focusing on learning Spanish quickly, I didn’t want to be the awkward kid. So I accidentally lost my French, and years later, Spanish felt natural.
The language that becomes yours
There is a direct link between language and culture, in my mind. The way of expressing feelings or thoughts come out differently from one language to another. English feels neutral, whereas Spanish makes me loud and excited, and my hands move as if independent from my body. Language is part of our identity, and the struggle in my case was finding what language belonged to me, or to which I belonged to.
So what is a mother language? If you ask me I would say it’s the language you are the most comfortable with. Right now? Spanish, but that answer might change. And it’s fine. How about you?
Whatever your definition of mother tongue is, happy 21st of February!
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