International Mother Language(s) Day: What Mother Language(s) do to you and what will you do with them?

Students and Faculty from the Center for Linguistics celebrated the International Mother language(s) Day on 21st February 2017 in SLL&CS. It was celebrated by a series of talks and discussions on the topic of Mother Language. The event underlined the importance of using Mother Languages in the 21st century, which are fast being threatened of ‘colonization’ by the hegemonic languages.

The day started with a talk by Dr. Hari Madhab Ray on Language and National Identity in Bangladesh: Linguistics Realities in Context. He talked about the creation of Bengali nationalism in Bangladesh and how this day was chosen to commemorate Mother Languages all around the world. He started by giving a brief account of the language movement in Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan).

Before the creation of Bangladesh, the linguistic scenario of undivided Pakistan was the following: Bangla speakers 57%, Punjabi speakers: 29%, Sindhi speakers: 5.5% and the rest. Despite this, only two languages were chosen to be the official languages of independent Pakistan – Urdu and English.

PM Liaquat Ali refused to constitutionally recognize Bangla as one of the official languages. In February 1948, this problem spilled on to the streets lead by the East Pakistan Student League which later merged with the Awami League. In the 1950s, the second phase of the language movement started which was against the policy of the state to “sanitize Bangla language and literature by removing un-Islamic references from Hindu mythology, loan words from Sanskrit, etc”. To protest this policy on February 21st, 1952 people came out on the streets, co-incidentally this was also the time when senior Pakistani leadership was due to meet in Dhaka to discuss the fiscal budget. The police dealt with the protestors violently leading to several fatalities. This event was later commemorated and the ‘Shahid Minar’ was erected in memory of those who fought for the cause of Bangla. This event was a milestone in their struggle and 20 years later culminated into Bangladeshi independence. UNESCO also commemorated the importance of this day by declaring this as the International Mother Language(s) day.

Dr. Hari Madhab Ray also pointed out that in the 21st century we must look at these events critically. 98% of Bangladesh is Bangla speaking but many other minority languages also exist like Munda, Oraon, Paharia, Rajbongshi, Santhal, etc which are not recognized by the present government, nor do they promote their use. In fact, Amena Mohsin in 2003 wrote extensively against the Bangladeshi government “accusing it of deeply hegemonic and chauvinistic language policies”, as the present state does not invest in minority language education in areas like the Chittagong Hill Tracts.

Later, Prof. Vaishna Narang gave a talk on the definition and neural basis of the Mother Tongue. She started by asking “What is Mother Tongue?” She said in the 1970s, the linguists believed that the Mother Tongue was in some sense the language of ethnic identity. But studies in multilingualism have raised questions on the very status of Mother Tongue. She argued that “today we really do not believe in one Mother Tongue”, languages differ horizontally and vertically in each speaker. People may speak in one language with their grandparents, another with their parents, yet another with their siblings and so on. However, despite this, there are strong proofs that the Mother Tongue does have a neural basis and is part of the neural processing of the brain as many MRI studies have shown even though how the language functions are distributed in the materiality of the brain as an organ is not really known.

Prof. Pramod Pandey talked about the importance of Mother Tongue Education. It is an important way in which the culture of a community can be preserved and can help prevent the genocide of languages. A fact which is less talked about is how this can cut dropout rates in primary schools. Since there is a huge gap between the language spoken at home and the medium of communication in school, that often (usually tribal) children drop out of school as they fail to comprehend anything.

The results of Langscape, a survey to map all the languages spoken in the JNU community were discussed. Some notable conclusions: As yet the survey was completed by 1700 people, and 224 mother tongues were identified (an increase of the previous Langscape conducted in 2011). 1070 people out of those surveyed speak three or more languages. Another notable change is the increase in the lesser known languages in new media. Hindi and English remain the most used languages in official communication. Since the final report and results of the Langscape will be out on 21st March, the Informer will get back to you with it.

The day ended with a small discussion by Prof. Ayesha Kidwai who noted that in JNU English/Hindi remains the dominant bilingualism. But we must be wary of using the domain of use to measure the vitality of language. In speakers of minority languages, multilingualism, a desire to promote mother tongue and identification with mother tongue is not weakened even if the Mother Tongue is used in an extremely restricted domain. There is also a growing awareness amongst the speakers as they identify their languages as different varieties like in the case of Bajjika and Wajjika. No more do speakers identify their languages as the dialects of Hindi. She also talked of the peculiar Indian multilingualism where if you can say “han” (yes) you speak Hindi. This kind of accommodation is not found in the US and UK where the native speakers of the language decide when you are a proficient speaker of the language. “This trend is healthy”, she emphasized as she gave examples of the B.A. 1st year students who would without fail have mentioned the languages they are learning in the survey. It means that there is no metric outside the speaker to measure the proficiency of the language.

Gargi from Centre for Linguistics works with The Informer.