Director General of OEI’s Ibero-American Programme for the Spreading of Portuguese Language
Ana Paula Laborinho
Director of OEI’s Office in Portugal
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world”
Last Friday was International Mother Language Day, commemorating an event that took place on 21 February 1952, when a group of students and activists in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, clashed with the Pakistani military during a demonstration. In it, they demanded the recognition of Bengali as an official state language. The date became known as “Language Martyrs’ Day” and this struggle contributed greatly to the creation of the sovereign state of Bangladesh, which seceded from Pakistan in 1971.
However, Bengali had a long literary tradition and even a Nobel Prize, which was awarded to Rabindranath Tagore in 1913 – the first Asian writer to receive this distinction- for the contribution of his works to the recognition of Bengali. Today it is the official language of Bangladesh, with about 265 million speakers. It has also become a symbol of the right to the mother tongue as part of human rights.
It is also an opportunity to reclaim languages that are disappearing. The most prestigious language statistics platform, Ethnologue (2019), points to the existence of 7,111 languages spoken in the world, of which 2,895 are spoken by less than 1,000 people: they are in danger of extinction. Furthermore, every two weeks a language disappears and with it a part of ancestral knowledge, cultural and intellectual heritage and a fragment of human diversity is lost.
On February 21, 2018, Audrey Azoulay, then Director-General of UNESCO, stressed: “A language is much more than a means of communication: it is a condition of humanity. It is the foundation of our values, our beliefs, our identity. It is through it that we transmit our experiences, traditions and knowledge. The diversity of languages reflects the irreducible richness of our imaginations and our ways of life.
The mother tongue is the first language a person learns. It is acquired naturally without pedagogical intervention. Therefore, it is a way of interpreting reality, a cultural asset and heritage that defines identity, social integration and communication.
The Objectives for Sustainable Development that make up Agenda 2030 are not only limited to claiming the need to preserve the planet, but also that which characterizes us as Humanity. Just as we see climate change advancing, standardization trends mean that the distinctive features of cultures and the temptation of monolingualism are being extinguished. We are sensitive to the disappearance of heritage and, therefore, to the need for its preservation, but safeguarding endangered languages seems of little relevance until those losses are close to us. Today, 40% of the world’s population does not have access to education in their mother tongue.
This is why the Sustainable Development Goal dedicated to Education (ODS4) calls for linguistic diversity and multilingualism as an integral part of inclusive and quality education. We are increasingly aware of the importance of mother tongue-inclusive multilingual education, especially for children in pre-school education.
We know that today’s educational contexts are very varied and mobility is an added challenge for host countries that have to develop multilingual education strategies.
The Organization of Ibero-American States for Education, Science and Culture (OEI) has been active for 70 years in a vast region characterized by the coexistence of very diverse native languages. The Ibero-American Cultural Charter, approved in 2006 by the 23 member States that make up the organization, highlights the importance of strengthening the knowledge and value of Ibero-American cultural diversity in education systems, ensuring that the languages of indigenous communities, their values and knowledge are incorporated into the curricula as full social, cultural and normative recognition. Increasingly, the region is becoming aware that its future depends on an intercultural education that allows equality among all and respect for the linguistic diversity existing in the region, and that also develops creativity and a multi-faceted vision of the world, key competencies for this 21st century. The idea is that we should consider multilingualism and intercultural understanding as a way of building global citizenship in order to face global challenges. This is our greatest challenge.
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