International Mother Language Day was established to raise awareness of the importance of multilingualism, and linguistic and cultural diversity. Inspired by the 1952 Bengali Language Movement, which sought recognition for the Bengali language, this annual observance is part of the United Nations’ larger initiative to “promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world”.

The intent of International Mother Language Day 2021 was to foster greater multilingualism and inclusivity in education, as well as in society at large. The promotion of native languages was thus directed towards endorsing mother tongue education during early childhood. This essential pedagogical need is not met for millions of people all over the world, with over 40% of the global population not having access to education in a language they understand, much less speak natively. This is very often to the detriment of these learners, who obtain poorer results across the board. The need to advocate for such mother tongue education is thus critical, especially during early childhood education.

Proportion mother language speakers vs. proportion of single medium schools per language in South Africa

The theme for 2022 is “Using technology for multilingual learning: Challenges and opportunities.” The immense potential of technology in education has been proven time and again during the global lockdowns and subsequent school closures caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. However, while the potential of tech-based remote learning has indeed been realised in higher-income countries, lower income countries have had less success – resorting to public television and radio broadcasts due the lack of internet access and the scarcity of personal computers.

The central aim that we should take away from this year’s observance is thus the promotion of inclusivity and accessibility through technology and multilingualism. It is, furthermore, necessary to prepare teachers educating within these low-income contexts so that they are better equipped to endorse multilingualism in the classroom and support their students through remote learning. These countries additionally need financial support and technological resources.

To further empower native languages, 2022 also marks the beginning of the United Nations Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032). This initiative endeavours to counter the threats to linguistic diversity as manifold languages continue to stare down extinction. Of the roughly 7,139 languages which are currently spoken worldwide, around 40% are endangered, with many comprising 1000 speakers or fewer. While the United Nations reckon that roughly one language disappears every two weeks, on the opposite end of the spectrum, only 23 of the estimated 7,139 languages are spoken by more than half the world’s population.

Resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 16 May 2007 (A/61/L.56 and Add.1)