Multilingual Education Theme of 2024 International Mother Language Day Accentuates Sustainable Development Goal

UNESCO poster of the International Mother Language Day with Sustainable Development Goal 2030 logo. Photo: Courtesy UNESCO website.

United Nations – The International Mother Language Day 2024 (IMLD) was celebrated with a special event at the United Nations (UN) Headquarters February 21, 2024.

First proclaimed by the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2000 at the efforts of Bangladesh, and later adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, IMLD emphasizes the importance of languages in promoting inclusive education and preserving cultural and linguistic diversity around the world.

This year’s theme ‘Multilingual Education – a pillar of learning and intergenerational learning’ points to the importance of early education in one’s mother tongue with gradual introduction of other languages for more effective learning.

Hosted by the mission of Bangladesh and co-hosted by missions of Austria, Bahrain, Bolivia, Romania, South Africa, the UN and UNESCO, the event began with singing of the theme song of the IMLD in Bengali, written and composed after the 1952 language movement in Bangladesh. This was followed by a musical performance by Sri Chinmoy International Choir, NYC.

Overview of Discussions:

UN General Assembly President Dennis Francis and Representatives from the Permanent Missions of Bangladesh, Bahrain, Romania, Bolivia, South Africa, Austria, India, and dignitaries from the UN and UNESCO stressed the importance of mother languages in preserving cultural diversity, learning and global harmony.

Discussions centered on this year’s theme of multilingual education for all. Participant Permanent Representatives to the UN all agreed on early childhood education of all subjects including Science and Technology in mother language or known language, gradually transitioning to education in other languages. Most countries have already introduced this policy, it was said at the IMLD celebration.

Referring to the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (SDG) to make equal education available to all, the speakers outlined steps their governments have taken towards this goal. As emphasized in the Asia and Pacific SDG 2024 report, such data will not only help measure the SDG progress within each nation, but also hold them accountable to implement the policies and steps.

Importance of Mother Language and Need to Preserve it:

President Dennis Francis of the UN General Assembly spoke about  language’s role in transmitting knowledge and wisdom across generations. Francis said language holds cultural and anthropological significance and is a crucial tool for communication, understanding and connection.

“A mother tongue tethers us to origins instilling in us the cultural perspectives and traditions of our communities of our ancestors,” Francis said.

Emphasizing the need to preserve mother languages, Francis said more than half of the 6,000 mother languages, particularly the indigenous languages spoken in the world today, are facing extinction. “The onus falls upon us to preserve and protect our rich linguistic heritage,” he said.

Multilingual education will be advantageous academically, he said, adding,  “Moreover, multilingual education can be a powerful tool for empowering marginalized communities, empowering speakers of indigenous languages.” It will help give voice more effectively to their needs and concerns he said. By addressing those concerns, life and meaning will be given to the pledge to leave no one behind, he added.

Francis said more children are learning in languages other than their mother tongues today. Stressing the critical need to integrate multilingual education into curriculums and to incorporate mother languages into emerging technologies and new learning tools, he said it would preserve cultures while aligning with SDG 4 which relates to inclusive and equitable quality education.

Stressing the importance of the mother language, Eliot Minchenberg, Director of UNESCO’s US Office in New York and UNESCO Representative to the UN, said, “It is the vehicle for a whole set of representation of relationships to the world, and for ways of thinking about oneself in relation to the others and to things,” he said.

Minchenberg spoke about the current lack of access to education among 40 percent of global population. Making access available through mother language and teaching subjects like Science in mother tongue from a very young age would contribute to increased self esteem, curiosity and cognitive abilities in children, he said.

Movses Abelian, Under-Secretary-General for UN General Assembly and Conference Management reiterated the vital role of mother languages and multilingualism. “One language sets your corridor for life. Two languages open every door all the way,” he said

Emphasizing the value of being educated in one’s mother language, India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ruchira Kamboj said, “It has been amply demonstrated that being well educated in one’s language, culture and traditions is not a detriment but indeed a huge benefit to educational, social and technological advancement,” Kamboj said.

Pointing out the need for multilingual education, Kamboj urged the world community to take concrete steps in that direction.

Permanent Representative from Bahrain, Jamal-fares-alrowaiei; from  Romania, Cornel Feruta; from Bolivia, Diego Pary Rodriguez; from Austria (Deputy), Stefan Pretterhofer; all emphasized the pivotal role of mother language in one’s cultural identity, making it imperative to preserve it and revitalize it as a means to empower communities.

Linking this year’s theme with the SDGs, Permanent Representative of Hungary, Dr. Zsuzsanna Horvath, pointed out that ensuring education in mother languages aligns with the target set out in SDG 4.4 point six on access to education for all, and contributes to the overarching goal of leaving no one behind.

Permanent Representative Hussein A. Kattanga of Tanzania spoke of language’s important role in sustainable development, mentioning research findings in favor of promoting multilingual education for empowerment of learners.

Noting the need to protect languages, Kattanga spoke of seven languages in his region facing risk of becoming extinct by the end of the century. “The extinction of languages will be an irreparable loss to the culture, history, civilization, and identity of peoples,” he said, adding the urgency to save small and minority languages from disappearing.

Permanent Representative Fred Sarufa of Papua New Guinea also said  12 of his country’s indigenous languages have become extinct and many others are  under threat of extinction, adding there was an urgent need to preserve them.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams’s message read by Dilip Chauhan of his office said his administration recognizes the importance of protecting linguistic and cultural diversity around the globe.

Initiatives Taken to Promote Education in Mother Languages:

Speakers at the IMLD celebration also listed initiatives taken by their country’s government to facilitate and ensure multilingual and mother language education.

UNESCO’S efforts were explained in detail by UNESCO’S New York Office Director and UNESCO’s Permanent Representative, Eliot Minchenberg.

He spoke of UNESCO’s seventh International Conference on language and education in October 2023 in Thailand, as an outcome of which 20 Asia Pacific countries committed to implementing the Bangkok plan of action for multilingual education based upon the Motherland. UNESCO also helps education ministries to develop multilingual education systems in Mozambique, he said.

UNESCO works on preserving all languages and protecting indigenous languages, with specific programs to switch the use of indigenous languages in public services to ensure knowledge to deal with crucial challenges to fight against hunger and to protect biodiversity.

A major initiatives of UNESCO promotes rich language on the internet and on the airwaves in place of over 90% of online content in just a dozen dominant languages, he said. In partnership with the Global Voices Network which is an international community of writers, translators and human rights activists, UNESCO has established a toolkit to help diversify the languages present on the web. It is also involved in projects supporting and promoting content in indigenous languages, he added.

Movses Abelian, Under-Secretary-General for UN General Assembly and Conference Management mentioned language professionals in conference management who are recruited to work in their mother language and in six official languages of the UN. They provide simultaneous interpretation of complex technical deliberations of member states, he said. He also mentioned translators who work on the official documents of the UN translating over 250 million words in these six languages every year.

Further to that, the organization is actively engaged with partner universities and other training institutions to promote multi language and language careers at the United Nations and ensure adequate capacity to deliver high quality services now and in the future.

Ruchira Kamboj, Permanent Representative of India said the Government of India has taken initiatives to promote mother tongue based multilingual education through its national three-language formula education policy, two of which are native Indian languages. The policy  recognizes the importance of teaching children in their mother languages during early years of education, and lead to a smooth transition to other languages at a later stage, preserving cultural identity and promoting linguistic diversity, she said.

Kamboj described Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address in this regard where he said that if youth have confidence in their own languages, their skills and talents will come to the forefront.

Other Representatives also outlined initiatives in their countries. Bangladesh has established an International Mother Language Research Institute in Dhaka, its Representative said. Representatives from Romania, Bolivia, Austria, Hungary, Tanzania and South Africa spoke of government programs to protect languages and language rights, and of dual language policies ensuring early education in mother languages with easy transition to other languages.

Interesting initiatives including digital recording of oral stories and cultural festivals supporting mother languages in Papua New Guinea were mentioned by its Permanent Representative.

The evening’s celebration also included a musical performance from different regions by the UN Chamber Music Society and a cultural stage performance.



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