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International Mother Language Day: India, a plurilingual country that speaks many tongues

M J Warsi

International Mother Language Day: India is a rich linguistic country and its plurality and diversity have been seen as its biggest strength. As colonization ended, newly independent countries in the world provided their citizens with constitutional rights for speaking their mother tongues. To further promote multilingualism, in 1999, UNESCO declared the 21st of February of every year to be observed as International Mother Language Day. 

Significance of International Mother Language Day

The significance of this day is to promote and create awareness of various linguistic and cultural traditions and diversity across the world. Language is the essence and identity of culture and is a major tool for exchanging ideas, emotions and feelings. The concept of the mother tongue has been often taken for granted. Between the debates on language acquisition and language, learning scholars have not found time to examine it carefully. 

How talking in mother tongue shapes one’s personality

The dictionary meaning of the mother tongue, ‘one’s native language’ is too inexact for purposes of formal definition and from the point of view of its application. We all are aware of the fact that languages matter. Not just for communication and expression but also for the overall development of an individual and community. Famous Indian poet, writer and playwright, Bhartendu Harishchandra beautifully captures this emotion, when he writes nija bhasha unnati ahai sab unnati ko mool; bin nij bhasha gyaan ke, mitat n hiye ko sool (In the development of one’s language lies all progress. And without the knowledge of one’s language, all knowledge is incomplete). On the importance and effectiveness of the mother tongue, in one of his speeches, Nelson Mandela said that “talking to a person in his language means that it goes straight to the heart of the person, whereas your ideas will go straight to a person’s head if you talk to him in a language that he understands”.

National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 gives importance to mother tongue

Keeping this spirit intact, the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 of India makes a promising commitment to ‘the preservation, growth, and vibrancy of all Indian languages.’ As per NEP-2020 wherever possible the medium of instruction until at least grade fifth should be the home language or the mother tongue or the local language or regional language. According to the 2011 census, there are 19569 languages spoken in India as mother tongues. However, various classifications are associated with these languages, such as – language and dialects, scheduled and non-scheduled, major and minor, etc. All of these languages today face varying degrees of challenges. About 220 Indian languages have gone extinct in the last fifty years, and nearly 197 languages have been declared as ‘endangered’ by UNESCO. So, it is pertinent that we create an environment where these languages survive and prosper. The new National Education Policy recommends that all students will learn three languages in their school under the ‘formula’. At least two of the three languages should be native to India. For example: If a student in Karnataka is learning Kannada and English, he/she will have to choose to learn another Indian language. The choice of languages learnt will depend on the state and the students. However, it is mandatory for at least two of the three languages to be native to the country, one of which is most likely to be the local/regional language. Under the section called ‘multilingualism, and power of language’, the NEP says “wherever possible, the medium of instruction until at least Class 5, but preferably till Class 8 and beyond, will be the home language/mother tongue/ local language/regional language.” High-quality textbooks, including in science, will be made available in home languages.

Multilingualism and India

People from India have migrated to all the continents. They have migrated with their language, culture and traditions to the country of their livelihood. Today, one often gives little thought when speaking about their native tongue. But is it ever a simple task to go about speaking your mother tongue? People of the Indian subcontinent make up one of the largest communities of immigrants to England, the United States, etc.  This means that the languages spoken in South Asia are spoken outside those borders as well.  Hence, diaspora communities create more nuances in the types of speakers of their language.  Some whose native tongue is the South Asian language can be bilingual, but there are also heritage language learners who want to reclaim their culture.  

Different dialects; the real social fabric of India

When we talk about the benefit of the mother tongue, we also look at the various shades that linguists and other researchers have talked about. Some scholars have accepted learning a language without any formal training as defining the mother tongue. Of Singleton’s three stages of socialization, primary socialization, the intimate socialization of the child in the family and primary group contexts, relates to the development of the mother tongue. This has the implication of more than one mother tongue for a person, as in a multi-lingual context the socialization of a child may involve multiple languages. For instance, an Oriya boy marrying a Tamil girl, speaking mostly English at home and employing a Hindustani ‘Ayah’ could bring up a child who would be using four languages before formal training. Under these circumstances, it would be erroneous to treat one of them with precedence in a ranking scale.

In recent times, the idea of linguistic and cultural awareness has increased thus allowing the mother tongue to be more culturally accepted. Using one’s mother tongue at home will make it easier for speakers to be more comfortable with their own linguistic and cultural identity. To bridge the language gap between a child’s home language and the language of instruction NEP-2020 emphasizes the importance of the mother tongue.

The author is a well-known linguist, author and columnist serving as the Chairperson, of the Department of Linguistics at AMU Aligarh.

(Views expressed above, solely belong to the author)

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