On Saturday of 6th week Oriel had the honour of playing host to International Mother Language Day, promoting cultural diversity and multilingual education. The history of this event goes back to 1947, shortly after the British partition of India which saw the Indian subcontinent arbitrarily cleaved in two based on religious identity. This posed a problem in what was known then as East Pakistan where the majority spoke Bangla, a language distinct from Urdu which was the official language by order of the Pakistani Governor-General Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
Although Bangla was recognised as an official language in 1956, those who spoke Bangla were still discriminated against by the authorities. The desire for cultural autonomy and linguistic expression, free from fear of persecution, catalysed the local independence movement, giving birth to the modern nation of Bangladesh in 1971.
International Mother Language Day at Oxford is run by the Oxford University Bangladesh Society with the aim of championing the rights of minority languages. Monzilur Rahman, the President of the OUBS, introduced the event by pointing out that there are around 7,000 languages in use around the world but most are only spoken by a very small number of people. It is right and proper that all these languages are recognised, not least of all because language is what makes us human. Rahman, a neuroscientist, explained that animals lack language and therefore the ability to structure their thoughts in the way humans can. Languages form the essence of our humanity as well as our nationality.
We are now losing many languages – it is estimated as many as one every fortnight.
We are now losing many languages – it is estimated as many as one every fortnight – and so it is vitally important that minority languages are protected. This is why International Mother Language Day is so important. The event consisted of a delicious South Asian-style lunch courtesy of the Saffron Indian restaurant followed by variety of cultural performances, including short talks and music. In the end there were about 60 participants representing 11 different countries
With such a wide range of languages being spoken, it was inevitable that most would not be able to understand the language of the performance. The point of the event, however, was to appreciate cultural expression and celebrate multilingualism, so the intelligibility of the performances did not matter. You can find videos of some of the performances on the Oxford University Bangladesh Society Facebook page.
It was inspiring to see so many different cultures coming together in solidarity for such a noble purpose. What was more inspiring was to know that this event was being celebrated all over the world. A simple search on Twitter of #motherlanguageday revealed that values of inclusive, multilingual education were being advanced everywhere, from Catalonia to Australia. It is especially pleasing to see that our own community of Oxford is devoted to the same cause. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that tolerance is dead.