International Mother Language Day is an annual event in UNESCO member states to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. It originated in Bangladesh, where it is known as ‘Ekushey February’. Ekush is Bangla for 21, and Ekushey means 21st. It commemorates 21st February 1952 when police opened fire on demonstrators upholding their right to speak their mother language, Bangla, when Urdu was being imposed as the national language. Four people were killed and many others injured.

All around the world over the centuries language have been lost either through disuse or by being deliberately oppresses as in the case of Bangla. Welsh, Breton and countless first nations’ languages have suffered this fate. The Atlas of world’s languages in danger http://www.unesco.org/languages-atlas/en/atlasmap.html at this link makes an excellent starting point for discussing language extinction with students.

Director-General of UNESCO Irina Bokova affirmed in her message on 21st February 2017,  

“There can be no authentic dialogue or effective international cooperation without respect for linguistic diversity, which opens up true understanding of every culture.”

Bokova, 2017

The theme of International Mother Language Day is “Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society.” By recognising and celebrating our languages we go a long way to fostering inclusion. UNESCO echoes many when it states that,

“Education, based on the first language or mother tongue, must begin from the early years as early childhood care and education is the foundation of learning.”

UNESCO, 2021

Language is the expression of culture and is crucial to our identity. We express our ideas and our views in words, the words of our language or languages. The more languages one speaks, the more one sees how embedded in culture language is; indeed, is language born of culture or culture of language? That is a great topic for debate with older students.

I have, for many years, encouraged the celebration of International Mother Language Day. In fact, in the last school where I worked, we took the whole week as a special celebration of languages.

I’d like to share with you some of the ways we used to celebrated the 50+ languages in the school where I worked.

You might like to try…

Make door notices/screen-savers for each form-/home-room to show the linguistic richness in each class. This can be a great Maths activity, especially if you are working on graphs or Venn diagrams.

Start each class with greetings in as many languages as the class can manage – practise each other’s greetings. Display a sheet on your screen, “I speak English / Hablo Espanol / Ich spreche Deutsch” etc. in your mother language/s.

Say “My name is…” in your language/another language to answer the register.

Create graffiti walls (actual or virtual) where students are invited to write how to say various things in their languages for example greetings, “Thank you”, “I love you.” They can record sound files to accompany the visual they create.

Ask them to find fascinating language facts, quotations and interesting words to share and make a quiz. Which country has 800 languages and 200 dialects? Which is the oldest language in the world today?

Find words that don’t exist in other languages: did you know the Germans have a word for taking pleasure in another’s pain (Schadenfreude)?

Quotations about languages – “It can hardly be a coincidence that no language on Earth has ever produced the expression ‘as pretty as an airport.’” (Douglas Adams) or “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.” (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe).

Linguafun language game

Create a whole-school quiz with a different question each day and prizes. We called ours Linguafun. Here are some examples of questions.  Each day (after day one), announce the answer and winner from the previous day.

Try watching the news in different languages: https://www.bbc.co.uk/ws/languages   

Show subtitles for a video you are using in class in another language or play it in another language and have the subtitles in English.

Languages – Research what animals say in other languages. Choose an animal and make a slide or poster to display it and what it says. These can be turned into a paper or electronic collage.

Art – Make a multilingual olive branch; each leaf has a different word for ‘Peace’.

Art, Arabic – Use calligraphy with illustration to show the meanings of words. There are some inspirational examples here: https://mymodernmet.com/arabic-illustrated-words/ This can be done with other languages and scripts too

Story-telling/Drama – Tell a story with actions/props in your language (individual or group).  Another individual/group retells the same story in another language.  Repeat as wanted.

Humanities – Studying the weather or weather features?  Try multilingual weather reports – a student dresses up to show the type of weather and delivers a short report on typical weather in her country in her mother language.  Other students can guess what she has said.

Science – For an assignment on elements: each student has to choose an element and work with it. Ask the students to find out from each other or research, what their element is called in other languages.

Get students to share songs or a nursery rhyme in their mother languages and the other students guess what it is about and try to join in. 

In PHSE students discuss how the words “emotion” and “feeling” are spoken in the different languages.  It can be very insightful to see how these words are articulated differently. It is fun and insightful to find how to express feelings in other languages too.

Literature – While studying a play, the students find words for certain character attributes in their own languages (like ‘boastful’ for Nick Bottom and ‘desperate’ for Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream).  As that play is about dreaming, they could also talk­ about what languages they dream in.

These are but a very few of the many ways you can celebrate languages. What is most important though, is not just to celebrate them on International Language Day (or week).

Languages should be celebrated all year-long.

Reference list

Bukova, I. (2017). Multilingual education is ‘absolutely essential,’ says UNESCO chief on Mother Language Day. https://news.un.org/en/story/2017/02/551942-multilingual-education-absolutely-essential-unesco-chief-says-mother-language

UNESCO 2017. Multilingualism in cyberspace. http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/resources/news-and-in-focus-articles/in-focus-articles/2005/multilingualism-in-cyberspace/

UNESCO 2021, International Mother Language Day.  https://en.unesco.org/commemorations/motherlanguageday#:~:text=The%20theme%20of%20the%202021,on%20leaving%20no%20one%20behind.

How will you celebrate your students' languages?
By Comments off February 20, 2021