International Mother Language Day | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, February 21, 2010 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, February 21, 2010

International Mother Language Day

MORE than a decade ago, the 30th session of the Unesco General Conference unanimously adopted a resolution tabled by Bangladesh and cosponsored by 28 countries, proclaiming February 21 as International Mother Language day. It is a matter of pride and glory for the nation that our immortal "Amar Ekushey" is now also observed all over the world. On this day, people in 185 countries promise to preserve their mother languages, like our immortal language martyrs had done nearly six decades ago. What a befitting tribute to our martyrs!
Bangladesh, as the initiator of the proposal, had also committed herself not only to preserve and enrich our own mother language, Bangla, but also to take initiatives for the preservation of 6,000 other languages currently spoken in the world as well as to promote the ekusheyer chetona (the spirit of our language movement) globally. What happened to that pledge?
It is unfortunate that even this rare international achievement got entangled in our polemical national politics. Since the resolution was adopted during the Awami League's tenure, the BNP-let government that came to power in 2001 decided to downplay this national achievement and suspended all actions to fulfill our international commitment.
The audio-visual materials on Ekushey February, which we were expected to send to all the countries to promote the spirit of Eksuehy, were not sent. The proposed Mother Language Study and Research Centre in Dhaka, whose foundation stone was laid by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina during former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan's visit to Bangladesh in March 2001, was not completed. This is particularly tragic since the Centre was expected to take concrete steps for the preservation of all mother languages, especially when a large number of them are dying at an alarming pace.
Even if we were not ready to play the international role, at least the proposed Centre could take some concrete steps to preserve all the mother languages in Bangladesh. The overwhelming majority of our people speak Bangla; yet there are roughly thirty minority ethnic and tribal groups, and about two million of our people speak in various tribal and tribal and ethnic languages and dialects. These languages are also disappearing fast, and we must preserve them to preserve our linguistic diversity and heritage. The proposed Centre could be a beacon in this direction.
What have we done to internationalise our mother language Bangla in this computer era? Sadly, Bangla -- spoken by about 250 million people in the world today -- has not yet got its due place in the computer system. Global software makers have incorporated more than 250 languages into the operating systems, but Bangla, I udnerstand, is still not among them. On the other hand, Bangla was incoporated in the computer Unicode as one of the state languages of India, and not as our national language. This tragic error should be rectified forthwith.
In this era of globalisation, we need to redouble our efforts to enrich Bangla by translating books and even the current best sellers. Here, one sees that some efforts have been taken by small commercial enterprises, but their accuracy in translation may not be up to the mark. Bangla Academy could play a more pivotal role in this regard.
What about the audio-visual materials on our language movement? The Department of Films and Publications could produce authentic documentary films on our language movement and our language martyrs. The government could also provide finance and utilise the talent of our internationally acclaimed film directors to make feature films based on our language movement.
The Ekushey Book Fair arranged at the Bangla Academy should be enlarged and internationalised so that publishers from all over the world feel inclined to participate, as they do every year in New Delhi and elsewhere. This would put our books and publishers on the world map, and thus benefit us immensely.
One feels sad that we have so badly let down our well-wishers abroad, particularly those who had co-sponsored our draft resolution. Our missions abroad, taking into account the sensitivity of the home countries, could involve the local academicians and language specialists in our observance of the day in various capitals.
As someone who had the privilege of being associated with the proposal from beginning to its final adoption, and its formal launching in Paris, I believe that our mission in Paris has a special role in the observance of the day at the Unesco Headquarters every year through intellectual get-togethers and cultural exchanges.
Unesco formally launched the day a decade ago. It is now Bangladesh's turn to play the prime mover's role to spread the Ekushey spirit all over the world so that people feel encouraged to protect their respective mother languages. Let us then rededicate ourselves to fulfill our commitment. The proposed Research Center should be completed and commissioned as soon as possible.

Syed Muazzem Ali is a former Foreign Secretary. He introduced the draft resolution as Bangladesh's Permanent Representative to Unesco at its 30th Conference on November 12, 1999 and piloted its unanimous adoption.

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