Daily Mirror - Print Edition

Languages and linguistic diversity vital for the world

22 Feb 2020 - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}      

Yesterday was the United Nation’s International Mother Language Day and the world body in a statement stresses the importance of safeguarding linguistic diversity. It says languages, with their complex implications for identity, communication, social integration, education and development, are of strategic importance for people and the planet.   

Yet, due to globalization processes, they are increasingly under threat, or disappearing altogether. When languages fade, so does the world’s rich tapestry of cultural diversity.

Opportunities, traditions, memory, unique modes of thinking and expression, valuable resources for ensuring a better future are also lost. 

Endangered are at least 43% of the estimated 6,000 languages spoken in the world. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain while less than a hundred are used in the digital world, according to the UN. International Mother Language Day has been observed every year since February 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. 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. The UN says that every two weeks a language disappears taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage. Linguistic diversity is increasingly threatened as more and more languages disappear. Nevertheless, progress is being made in mother tongue-based multilingual education with growing understanding of its importance, particularly in early schooling, and more commitment to its development in public life. Multilingual and multicultural societies exist through their languages which transmit and preserve traditional knowledge and cultures in a sustainable way, the UN says. In a resolution passed in 2002, the UN General Assembly welcomed the proclamation of the International Mother Language Day. These initiatives not only increased awareness of language issues, but also mobilized partners and resources for supporting the implementation of strategies and policies in favour of language diversity and multilingualism in all parts of the world.  

The UN says, the International Year of Languages came at a time when linguistic diversity was increasingly threatened. Language is fundamental to communication of all kinds, and it is communication that makes change and development possible in human society. Using -- or not using -- certain languages today can open a door or close it, for large segments of society in many parts of the world.  

In Sri Lanka we need to reflect deeply on the importance of mother languages and the need for unity in diversity as we have two major languages Sinhala and Tamil with English as a link language. In the 1950’s the mother tongue became a political issue when senior minister SWRD Bandaranaike broke away from the ruling United National Party and became the leader of the SLFP. Minister Bandaranaike formed a coalition with Philip Gunawardene’s Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP) and other parties. The MEP coalition won a clear majority in the 1956 general election with the main promise being to impose the policy of Sinhala only. The UNP’s leader JR Jayawardene went a step further and promised Sinhala only in 24 hours. When the Federal Party protested peacefully at the Galle Face Green its leaders were attacked by the police. This created tension on the basis of the use of Sinhala and Tamil languages. In 1965 UNP leader Dudley Senanayake won the general election and formed a coalition including the Federal Party with M. Tiruchchelvam as the Minister of Local Government. He worked out a new policy for District Councils. This was an evolution on the policy worked out in 1958 by the then premier Bandaranaike and the Federal Party leader SJV Chelvanayakam. Extremists forced Mr. Bandaranaike to scrap the B-C pact in 1958 after riots against the Tamil community and the declaration of the State of Emergency. He prophesied the country would suffer the consequences and indeed it did tn the blood bath that followed. 

In the 1970’s, the Sirimavo Bandaranaike government imposed a district quota system for university admissions. Most analysts say this and other causes led to the formation of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and led to the the devastating 30 year ethnic war. We see here how the political misuse or abuse of a mother language policy in a muti-language society, caused havoc and we hope politicians never again will resort to such madness and instead bring about reconciliation among the Sinhala, Tamil, Muslim and 
other communities.