International Mother Language Day observed

February 21 is observed as International Mother Language Day, proclaimed by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1999 to promote all the languages of the world. UNESCO also publishes the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger to raise awareness about the need to safeguard the world’s linguistic diversity. Derrick Mbatha asked Dr. Matthias Brenzinger, a linguist based in Gaborone, Botswana about the importance of mother tongue.

BRENZINGER: Mother tongue is important to all people and with the general trend of globalization, it becomes more and more important for people to identify themselves as communities in order to have their own identity saved and promoted.

MBATHA: Talking about various communities, how would you respond to the argument that in fact it’s good for humanity in the world to speak one language because it makes communication easier among various communities?

BRENZINGER: I think this argument is valid and I think we should all speak one language and we should all be able to communicate, but there is no need to give up your own language if you are acquiring other second languages. It’s a benefit also intellectually to have those second languages. And the global languages like Spanish and English are spreading as second languages not as mother tongues.

MBATHA: Now, as you know, UNESCO publishes the Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. What does the newest edition of the Atlas say about these languages?

BRENZINGER: We talk about the worldwide number of languages. We linguists believe that there are about 6 to 7,000 languages and about 2,500 of them are now considered being endangered. That means they are included in this new edition of the Atlas which is also accessible online.

MBATHA: What is endangering these 2,500 languages?

BRENZINGER: Most of those languages are now endangered because people live today in national states with national dominant languages like German in Germany, like French in France and Japanese in Japan. So all these small languages spoken in those countries are endangered because community members shift to those dominant languages and give up their own.

MBATHA: What are some of the challenges in efforts to preserve linguistic diversity?

BRENZINGER: Languages are threatened in various different ways in very different contexts. Most of the 364 languages which I actually added to the Atlas on Endangered Languages by the UNESCO, most of them still have speakers and one just has to convince them that this is a valuable cultural asset which should be transmitted to their children. You have other cases like for example in Hawaii where there is a movement to reintroduce Hawaiian. So there are new mother tongue speakers of Hawaiian. In Africa it’s more changing attitudes towards the languages. The languages are still there and spoken and one needs to raise awareness among the communities that it’s a cultural treasure.

Narrator:  That was Dr. Matthias Brenzinger, a linguist based in Gaborone, Botswana, speaking with UN Radio’s Derrick Mbatha.

Duration: 2’41″

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