A few weeks ago at a gathering at my place, someone pointed to my collection of books in Bengali and asked: "Can you really read them?"
For a second, I was tempted to mess with her and say. "No, I keep them for decorative purposes!"
I didn't, but I'm always surprised at why people find it weird that I am fluent enough in another language to read entire novels written in a script so entirely different from English. Clearly, I have a non-Canadian accent when I speak English, meaning English is NOT my first language. So why should I not be bilingual? And why should I not display my first language, that which my mother spoke to me, with pride? We all should.
I was reminded of this incident very recently since the 21st of February, which just passed, was celebrated as UNESCO's "InternationalMother Language Day"
across the world. It has been observed yearly since 2000 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism across the world. It is of particular significance to me because the proposal to declare the particulars of this day was sent by Bangladesh - the country of my birth and the country that fought for the right of its people to speak the language of their parents, Bengali.
For Bangladesh, formally East Pakistan, the fight for the Mother Language was a fight for identity as well as against oppression. With the creation of state of Pakistan in 1945, it was decreed that "Urdu, and only Urdu" would remain as the official state language of Pakistan. This decision was faced with immediate criticism from the Bengali-speaking majority living in East Pakistan because with one state language, the educated society of East Pakistan who spoke Bengali, would become "illiterate" and "ineligible" for government positions. Furthermore, the protesters against one official language were labeled as "Enemies of the State" for choosing to preserve their language and culture over the integrity and sovereignty of their nation. The government invoked a limited curfew against the provincial strike of university students across East Pakistan who called for Bengali to be recognized as the second official language of Pakistan. Protests were tamed down so as to not break the curfew. However, on February 21, 1952, the police fired on a group of young university students despite their peaceful protests and a number were killed. It started a wave of dissent and widespread protests across the province, until Bengali was officially accepted as a second official language of Pakistan in 1954. This is the monument built in the honor of the young souls do died during the movement.
This Language Movement
had a major cultural impact on the Bengali speaking population of Pakistan. Some historians have put it down as the beginnings of the internal conflict that ended with a civil war between the two sections of Pakistan and ultimately, the creation of the nation of Bangladesh in 1971. Throughout the entire time of the conflict until the present time, the 21st of February has been celebrated as Language Movement Day or Shohid Dibosh
(Martyrs' Day) in Bangladesh and has inspired the development and celebration of the Bengali language, literature and culture. A month-long event called the Ekushey Book Fair
is held every year to commemorate the movement, the likes of which I'm yet to see anywhere. To take the message about the importance of preserving languages to a more global level, Bangladesh officially sent a proposal to UNESCO to declare February 21st "International Mother Language Day"; it was supported unanimously at the 30th General Conference of UNESCO held on November 17, 1999.
So why is it important to preserve our mother language? Well, languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage. All movements 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.
I have not noticed much celebration of "International Mother Language Day" in Canada, which quite surprises me. In Canada, the historic struggle between French and English colonizers to possess the "New World" resulted in the establishment of two "official" languages - English and French. Although they compete for use with many other languages, they still remain the two dominant languages of the country and that says a great deal about Canada's history, culture and heritage. The importance of preserving a mother language can only become more essential as Canada as a country becomes more and more multicultural. Unfortunately, the opposite happens. New immigrants arrive in Canada with their own mother languages and they are quite often made fun of because the way they speak English or French sounds "weird/different", when their multilingualism should be applauded. First generation immigrants, feeling the pressure to sound more "Canadian", also end up not doing enough to preserve the rich heritage of their languages and don't always pass it on to their next generations. I place myself among those people when I chat up my nephews in English more and more frequently.
Being bi or multilingual should not make you "less Canadian"; it should make you more so because it truly represents the sprit of openeness that's supposed to exist in Canada. There are other benefits of being bi or multilingual as well. Recently, there has been a study
by a scientist at the Baycrest Centre in Toronto which showed that being bilingual can delay the onset of Alzheimer's disease by a few years!
I, for one, would like to see "International Mother Language Day" celebrated with great gusto in Canada to truly appreaciate the rich heritage of our people, freshly arrived or not.