UNESCO has designated today, Feb. 21, 2009, as the tenth annual International Mother Language Day, dedicated to the preservation of first languages, heritage languages, and endangered languages everywhere. But avoiding all foreign entanglements, the U.S. has refused to sign on to Mother Language Day until American immigrants agree to celebrate it only in English.
The official poster for UNESCO's 2009 International Mother Language Day
International Mother Language Day is an outgrowth of Language Martyr’s Day in Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan. Language Martyr's Day shows what can happen when a country designates an official language while trampling the rights of citizens who speak other tongues.
When the leaders of Pakistan declared Urdu that country's official language, the vast majority of people in East Pakistan spoke Bengali. In fact, the majority of people in what was then West Pakistan didn't speak Urdu either, and they still don't.
Defying a ban against public assembly, supporters of Bengali in East Pakistan gathered at Dhaka Medical College on Feb. 21, 1952. Police opened fire on the crowd, and those killed that day were mourned as language martyrs. The Bengali Language Movement eventually fed into a generalized call for independence, and Bangladesh ultimately broke from Pakistan in 1971, establishing Bengali as the new nation's official language.
This custom-designed stamp celebrating Mother Language Day shows the Shaheed Minar, the Martyr's Monument near Dhaka Medical College honoring those killed on Feb. 21, 1952, defending the Bengali language.
This year's celebration of International Mother Language Day in Paris will unveil UNESCO's new, interactive endangered languages atlas and map. UNESCO is warning that half of the 6,000 – 7,000 languages spoken in the world today could disappear by the end of this century, and both the UN's Endangered Languages Atlas and UNESCO's related Initiative B@bel are committed to recording and preserving those languages and promoting both minority language rights and multilingualism.
The Endangered Languages Atlas pinpoints 2,500 languages which could disappear by 2100.
Local languages on every continent are experiencing decline, and many face extinction. But while some people blame this on the inexorable spread of English, Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, and the other 800-pound-gorilla languages, it's not really the case that big languages are destroying smaller ones.
True, sometimes language loss is caused by conquest and oppression. But it's also likely that one group may peacefully absorb another through intermarriage, with one language falling by the wayside. But what seems to be happening a lot today is that speakers of dying or endangered languages are simply abandoning their mother tongues in favor of a language which they think offers them greater economic or political advantage, or higher social status.
Endangered languages can be found anywhere in the world, as the map above illustrates. They're dying off in remote areas of the globe, but they're also dying close to home. For example, there are only 200 remaining speakers of "critically-endangered" Sauk-Fox, a Native American language spoken in tiny Tama, Iowa, about 15 miles north of Grinnell, and only 315 miles from where I'm sitting in Champaign, Illinois.
This flag on UNESCO's endangered languages map pinpoints what's left of Iowa's Sauk-Fox speakers.
Efforts to record and preserve the most critically-endangered languages before their last speakers die out are gaining media attention. "The Linguists," a recent documentary shown at Sundance and premiering today at the International Mother Language Day ceremonies, recounts the efforts of two linguists traveling the world looking for languages to record "before their words are never heard again."
Still from the trailer of "The Linguists" showing one skeptical endangered-language speaker who has no problem expressing herself in the universal language.
But it's not just the little languages that die out, at least not in the United States. It's true that Native American tongues as tiny as Sauk-Fox or as large as Navajo are in decline, along with 190 others on the UN's American language death watch (75 of these are on the critical list, some having only a handful of speakers or less). But it's also true that U.S. speakers of "big" languages like Spanish, German, Russian, Yiddish, Vietnamese, Polish, Hindi and Chinese are switching to English, and most of these mother languages will disappear – in this country – in only a generation or two, just as immigrant languages in the U.S. have always done.
So while language professionals around the world celebrate linguistic diversity and the efforts to keep speech of all kinds alive, in America, Mother Language Day is all about protecting mother English, which is why some Americans will start the day by warning that it's really mighty English that's endangered in the U.S., not Hopi or Hawaiian.
No matter that speakers of Spanish, the second most-widely-spoken American language after English, are dropping their mother language in favor of English, as are speakers of Sauk-Fox, one of the least widely spoken American tongues. To the defenders of English, as long as anyone has to "press 1 for English" and decipher multilingual product labels, English is in trouble.
Languages competing in the American sociocultural context have given way to English for 300 years, but the new American language nativists won't rest content until English is the nation's official language, and if police in riot gear have to be called out to protect official English, as they had to protect official Urdu in East Pakistan, then speakers of other languages just better watch what they say, or they'll be dodging rubber bullets. Because 80.3% of Americans speak English and only English, and they aren't really interested in entering a float for the International Mother Language Day parade unless the paraders are only speaking English.
Stephen Colbert complains about translating the Star-Spangled Banner into Spanish.