Youths decorate with flowers the Bangladesh Central Language Martyrs' Memorial monument on International Mother Language Day in Dhaka on Feb. 21, 2020. (Photo: AFP)
“What’s the first thing you’d do after conquering a country?” Confucius was asked. The sage replied: “Reform the language.” Every invader has remembered this counsel.
Quarrels over language have been part of the human scene since time immemorial. The Bible describes these tensions in the mythical story of the “Tower of Babel,” where language ceases to be means of communication and becomes instead a source of misunderstanding and confusion.
The forcible imposition of one language over another, over an alien cultural group, usually occurs with conquest. This, after all, is what a global language invariably is — “a dialect with an army.”
Alexander’s military campaigns took him all over West Asia, and soon koine hellenike or common Greek became the link language between various cultures. And thus it became the language of the Bible as well.
For centuries French was the language of culture and diplomacy, and so the common bond between strangers, as the term lingua franca still reminds us. Today English has taken its place.
In more modern times, totalitarian regimes have enforced a uniform language upon their subject people and suffocated the local language. Russian in the Soviet republics is a good example. The present Indian government has similar aspirations with Hindi.
In an earlier time, a medieval world, one language was usually enough and that was the mother tongue in spoken form, not written
On our subcontinent, the language of an upper-caste minority dictated to the rest what being cultured was all about — Sanskrit. Ordinary folk expressed themselves in their natural dialects — Prakrit.
The most significant imposition of a unilingual policy in recent times was that of Urdu upon both West Pakistan and its eastern wing, now Bangladesh. The refusal of the West Pakistani authorities to give equal space to Bengali led to the fracture of the nation in 1971 and the creation of Bangladesh.
Interestingly, Feb. 21 was chosen by Bangladeshis to assert the right to one’s mother tongue. UNESCO accepted this date as International Mother Language Day in November 1999, and the United Nations in 2002 welcomed the decision.
On May 16, 2007, the United Nations General Assembly through a resolution called upon member states “to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world.”
It also urged all peoples to “promote unity in diversity and international understanding, through multilingualism and multiculturalism.”
In an earlier time, a medieval world, one language was usually enough and that was the mother tongue in spoken form, not written.
There was a simple reason for this: in a world centered around the village or the small township, few traveled beyond its borders, and so spoken language — the dialect — took care of all one’s needs.
Nothing needed to be written down, everything was memorized. Nursery rhymes, folk songs with coded refrains, and proverbs served as practical mnemonics and assisted in everyday tasks.
No longer. Today’s society is sharply divided between the home and the world.
Gifted though we are in our native language, spoken at home and in the family circle, it’s another language — "father’s language" — that the child needs in the public forum, that is, in school, the office, the media, the city council.
The mother language is for the kitchen and the bedroom, for private sharing and affectionate chatter. It has little public status.
In the wide world, it is the father’s language that comes enmeshed in script and numbers. For it is writing and counting which shape the public sphere. Thus “those who don’t count, don’t count.”
This second language, sometimes a more developed form of the mother language, sometimes a new language altogether, determines one’s status in society.
It is masculine and abstract, organized and systematic, connecting one to a different world out there, with its promises of prosperity, opportunity and status.
And it’s this second language that causes so much political turmoil, not just today but even earlier.
The power structures of this land can be described in binaries: Sanskrit-Prakrit, Farsi-Hindustani, English-bhasha, where bhasha stands for the regional language with all its local variations.
The anger of the common folk is that the bhasha is not developed enough to handle the interactions of the modern world. This is the tragedy of modern India.
At this point in time in India, the father language is English, the language of science and technology, travel and tourism, media and the internet. In brief, it is the language of upward mobility.
So it is not just the mother language that is the path to education, but bilingualism, and even multilingualism, which shows us the way to the future. The key to it is technology.
During Covid-19 school closures, many countries around the world employed technology-based solutions to maintain continuity of learning
In today’s world, the blackboard and the copybook have become obsolete. Their place has been taken by the TV set and the video cassette, the transistor radio, the laptop and, increasingly now, the omnipresent, omniscient smartphone.
So it is appropriate therefore that the theme of this year’s International Mother Language Day is “Opportunities to use technology for multilingual learning.”
During Covid-19 school closures, many countries around the world employed technology-based solutions to maintain continuity of learning.
In many cities in India, online learning via the computer became mandatory for schools and colleges. This was so despite the fact that internet speeds and connectivity in India are among the poorest in the world.
In low-income countries, broadcast media such as television and radio continue to support learning. But increasingly, newer online applications also enable users to express themselves in foreign languages using their smartphones. In other words, the multilinguistic world is part of our contemporary reality.
Will this reality negate the ancient myth of Babel by presenting us with a newer and better narrative, the “myth of Pentecost?”
In the Pentecost story, the large and diverse audience hears the message of the apostle, “each one in his own mother tongue.”
In other words, language no longer becomes a barrier to communication. Rather, assisted by technology, many languages — and not just one — grasped and understood, expressed and assimilated, have the power to unite and promote understanding and inclusiveness.
This is our challenge and opportunity.
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