Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences gives keynote address at this years International Mother Language Day

By Prof. Martin Njoroge

The International Mother Language Day (IMLD) falls on February 21 of every year and this year’s theme of the day was “Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society”. The event was marked by a webinar hosted by the Multilingual Education Network, the University of Nairobi, and Bible Translation and Literacy.

Prof. Martin Njoroge, Dean, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, was one of the four presenters during the webinar. In his address, titled History of International Mother Language Day – Key Highlights and Themes, traced the background and history of the day, which has its origins in 1948, when the then Government of Pakistan declared Urdu to be the sole national language of Pakistan even though Bengali or Bangla was spoken by the majority of people combining East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and West Pakistan (now Pakistan).

On February 21, 1952, a number of students campaigning for the recognition of Bangla as one of the state languages of Pakistan were killed when police fired upon them. The movement reached its climax when police killed student demonstrators on that day. Eventually, the government had to give in and Bangla was also accepted as the State Language of Pakistan alongside Urdu.

In 1998, Rafiqul Islam and Abdus Salam, Bengalis living in Vancouver, Canada, wrote to the United Nations, asking them to commemorate the 1952 killings of university students in Dhaka and mark the day to preserve languages from around the world from extinction. They wrote a letter to Kofi Annan on January 9, 1998 asking him to take a step for saving the world's languages from extinction by declaring an International Mother Language Day. They proposed the date as 21 February to commemorate the 1952 killings in Dhaka during the Language Movement. This led to UNESCO’s declaration of 21st February as International Mother Language Day (IMLD).

In his speech, Prof. Njoroge noted that the Day was important as it promoted awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism, in addition to boosting the awareness of the importance of mother tongue education.

“According to UNESCO, languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All moves to promote the dissemination of mother tongues will serve not only to encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but also to develop fuller awareness of linguistic and cultural traditions throughout the world and to inspire solidarity based on understanding, tolerance and dialogue,” he said.

“UNESCO believes education, based on the first language or mother tongue, must begin from the early years as early childhood care and education is the foundation of learning. Linguistic and cultural diversity represent universal values that strengthen the unity and cohesion of societies,” he added.

The Dean further urged those present to use international Mother Language Day to remember not only those who sacrificed their lives but also remember the importance of embracing all the world’s cultures and languages. He added that the day offers the time when we remember the power of language—to tell us where we came from, to share our story with others, to persuade, to educate, and to preserve our cultures.

“I want to urge all of us to take the opportunity offered by International Mother Language Day to reaffirm our respect for the great diversity of languages and cultures we see around the world and to work together so as to promote mutual understanding and cooperation,” he concluded.

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