Celebrating mother languages

Linguists are increasingly realizing that more and more languages are becoming endangered. At the moment, at least 50 percent of the world’s languages look like they’re not going to make it to the end of this century. 50 per cent is a conservative estimate.

What extinct means is that when the last person who speaks any language as a native language dies, then we consider that the language is dead. In many cases, that’s the last speaker altogether,” says Päivi Koskinen who is with the Linguistics Faculty, Department of Language and Cultures at Kwantlen Polytechnic University.

To promote mother languages in British Columbia, most of the Lower Mainland municipalities will celebrate International Mother Language Day on Feb. 21. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced on November 17, 1999 that International Mother Language Day would be formally recognized by the United Nations General Assembly and established 2008 as the International Year of Languages.

In this year’s event, which takes place Feb. 11, Kwantlen University will be highlighting the five languages that the department of languages and cultures teach, including French, Japanese, Mandarin, Punjabi and Spanish. There will be musical performances from each of these cultures.

“Language Day is for individuals to learn to appreciate their own mother languages but also to share them. So there are also other events in the lower mainland,” says Koskinen.

Language preservation efforts in Surrey

The Mother Language Lovers of the World Society first proposed the idea to UNESCO, which proclaimed the first official day to take place in 2000.

Mother Language Lovers of the World Society used the City of Surrey as a model city of implementation for International Mother Language Day. The
Society is working with school boards to make younger people aware of the value of their mother tongues.

“We must respect all mother languages. First Nations and immigrants’ languages, as well as linguistic minorities, like braille and sign language,” says
Mohammad Aminul Islam, who immigrated to Canada from Bangladesh in 1987.

Rafiqul Islam, the late founding president of the Mother Language Lovers of the World Society, came up with the idea for International Mother Language Day.

“We are enriching the [whole of] Canada by sharing all the cultures. For example, my culture, heritage, and language is 1,000 years old. I am bringing all this history to enrich society. Everyone is sharing,” Mohammad Aminul Islam says.

In Surrey, there are 175 mother languages and Islam hopes that one day all of Canada will declare February 21 as International Mother Language Day.

If society can introduce the mother language day in the Vancouver School District school calendar, at least 56,000 students will become aware of the importance of their mother languages each year, Mohammad Aminul Islam notes.

“Children are the main carriers of their mother tongue. They can carry the message and uphold their mother language generation after generation,” he explains.

In his presentation to the Surrey City Council, he noted that 60 per cent speak a language other than English at home and 25 per cent of elementary students are designated as English as Second Language (ESL) learners in Vancouver schools.

“I approached Surrey to create a monument there as a permanent reminder of all mother languages. The name of the monument is Lingua Aqua. Lingua means language and Aqua means water,” says Mohammad Aminul Islam.

The monument was unveiled in 2009 in Bear Creek in Surrey.

Preserving indigenous languages

British Columbia alone has more than 30 indigenous languages that are in danger of disappearing. In Canada, indigenous children were removed from their homes and taken to residential schools. They were forbidden to speak their native language. Koskinen explains that when they were sent home, even if they knew the language, they were too traumatized to use it.

“When they had children, they would not pass on the indigenous language because in their heads, if you’re a child and you speak an indigenous language, you get beaten. That means that the current young adult generation was not taught indigenous language because of the parents’ trauma. So when the grandparents now pass on, then the language just disappears,” says Koskinen, who was born in Finland.

The younger generation, those under 30 years of age, are realizing the importance of learning their languages to preserve their cultural heritage. One example is the Squamish language, which was down to a handful of elderly speakers. But the youth have taken it upon themselves to develop teaching materials and courses.

“Last number I saw of speakers of this language was 70. They went from seven to 70 because young people decided that they’re not going to let their language die. So languages can be revived,” she says.

“Language is also an identity and makes you belong to a group. You are part of a bigger group around the world, but the language will make you feel part of the group,” adds Koskinen.

The Canadian Language Museum

Elaine Gould, director of the Toronto-based Canadian Language Museum, sees the benefits of celebrating International Mother Language Day as a way to promote the diversity of languages across the country and foster pride in minority languages.

“[It also] helps new immigrants feel comfortable in Canada [and] encourages public support of revitalization efforts for indigenous languages,” she says.

The Canadian Language Museum’s mandate is to bring information about the richness of Canadian languages to all Canadians.

“We definitely feel that language is closely related to culture, and that the language one speaks has a big influence on how you view your own identity and how you relate to the rest of Canadian society,” says Gould.