Excellencies, USG Abelian, Distinguished Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen
A very good morning to you all.
I thank the NGO Committee on Language and Languages for organizing today’s event. My special thanks to Professor Francis and Professor Tonkin for inviting me to share a few thoughts on this important subject.
I am very pleased to see the UN Coordinator for Multilingualism USG Movses Abelian here. Thank you, USG for your comprehensive briefing on the UN’s mandates, policies, and practices in the area of multilingualism. I take this opportunity to thank you for your leadership in promoting multilingualism in the UN.
As you have rightly reminded us: multilingualism is a founding principle and core value of the United Nations.
And, in today’s diverse and inter-connected world, there can hardly be any dispute that language serves as a powerful tool to connect people and diverse cultures. And this is all the more relevant now when we witness an alarming rise in intolerance and social tensions globally. Multilingualism promotes understanding and dialogue; and can act as a catalyst for inclusion; tolerance; peace and pluralism. Linguistic diversity enriches societies and sustains cultures and heritage through time. And in our world of multilateralism, multilingualism is an enabler of multilateral diplomacy.
Yet, multilingualism continues to face challenges. Studies by UNESCO reveal that nearly half of the world’s 7000 languages are endangered and are at risk of becoming extinct by the turn of the century. Every fortnight, a language dies; taking with it the unique identity, culture, knowledge and intangible heritage of a nation and its people. This is an irreparable loss.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also had its impacts on multilingualism. In many small and remote societies, Covid deaths of the elders may be hastening the extinction of some rare languages. With their passing, their unique linguistic and cultural heritages are being lost forever. Even before Covid this was happening; Covid may have only hastened the process.
According to another study by UNESCO, an estimated 40 per cent of the world population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand.
There is clearly an urgent need to act to save our languages, our heritage. Thank you COLL, for all that you are doing to promote multilingualism. Meetings such as this certainly contribute to raise awareness and drive home the urgency to act.
Let me now share what language means to us in Bangladesh. And how we utilized our national experience to steer an international campaign which led to the declaration of the 21st of February to be celebrated each year as the International Mother Language Day, to promote and preserve multilingualism.
Bangladesh literally means: the land of the Bangalis; i.e. those who speak the language Bangla. So ours is a nation of, and for the Bangla speaking people. Our very identity as a nation is linked to our language, our linguistic identity. And from that stems our avowed position on multilingualism.
We are perhaps the only nation in the world to have shed blood for our mother language.
Our language movement [yes, we had a movement to establish our language] can be traced back to the 21st of February, 1952, when a group of courageous young men and women, students of Dhaka University, raised up in protest against a decree by the Pakistani rulers, to impose a foreign language upon us as the state language. The students had demonstrated to establish the right to speak and use our mother language ‘Bangla’, and to ensure its rightful place as the lingua franca of all Bangalis, in what was then the eastern province of Pakistan. The authorities had responded by force that day, leading to the deaths of the protesting students. Those deaths did not go in vain; the language movement started, leading eventually to Bangla being given the status of State language.
That incident planted the seed of our nationalism, which ultimately led to our war of liberation from Pakistan and the emergence of the new state of Bangladesh in 1971. What started as a language movement to establish the rightful place of our language, eventually led to our independence.
Our Founding Father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman who had been instrumental behind the language movement in 1952, rallied the whole nation subsequently to the war of liberation in 1971. In 1974 when Bangladesh became the member of the United Nations, Bangabandhu addressed the General Assembly in ‘Bangla,’ reinforcing the nation’s deep commitment to mother tongue. That tradition has continued.
The most fitting tribute to the language martyrs of Bangladesh, was the proclamation by UNESCO in 1999, to observe 21st of February each year as the International Mother Language Day. UNESCO’s proclamation was subsequently endorsed by multiple UNGA resolutions.
Since 1999, the day is being observed each year by all UN member States with due fervor to promote multilingualism.
The fundamental principle of multilingualism is to respect the right to all mother languages. In Bangladesh, we have our ethnic minorities who form an integral part of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and multi-religious fabric of our nation. We are working to preserve and promote their distinct identity, languages, culture, and heritage. The national curriculum textbooks are produced in the main five tribal languages, and are distributed free of cost. 132 schools are now providing education in the mother languages of the different smaller ethnic and tribal groups.
To preserve and promote multilingualism, we have also established the ‘International Mother Language Institute’ in Bangladesh [which supports research and scholarly work for the preservation of languages.]
Excellencies and dear colleagues
In the rapidly changing global scenario, we need to stay true to our commitment to promote multilingualism, especially in preserving the endangered languages. And for that we need concerted effort at every level.
Let me share some thoughts:
First, the United Nations continues to the lead by example, in promoting multilingualism in its work, by conducting all its work in the six official languages. However, that may not be enough. A large number of nations and people of the world are excluded from using their own language in communicating at the United Nations. For instance, the Bangla-speaking people do not have the benefit of speaking Bangla in the UN. Bangla is spoken by over 260 million people globally; seventh most spoken language; yet we use a foreign language in the UN to communicate. We would like to see greater efforts by the UN to find ways to ensure inclusion of all languages, including of sign languages in the UN.
Second, technology has an important role in promoting multilingualism. For example, Google Translator can interpret in more than 50 languages. However to reap the benefits of technology we must ensure its access to all, especially those living in the less developed and developing countries, where the digital divide is a major challenge. We need to mobilize international support for making technology available to all.
Third, we must invest in preserving languages that are on the verge of extinction. This would require respect for diverse culture and languages and enabling legal and policy framework at the national level with supporting international instruments. At the global context, we need to promote technological advancements for preservation of all languages, especially the endangered ones. UNESCO has a particular role in this regard.
Fourth, People to people contact are an important tool for promoting multilingualism. For example, student exchange programmes can be a useful means to expose the youth to diverse languages and cultures of the world. That would enhance respect for multilingualism. This should be expanded to reach those left farthest behind. Private organizations and philanthropists can also support such programmes with financial and other assistances. Equally important is the role of cultural organizations, musicians, artists. Culture and literature have no borders; their appeal is universal.
Finally, I wish to conclude by sharing that, every year, we observe, with the support of UN DGACM and the UN Department of Global Communications, the International Mother Language Day on 21st February. We hope to do the same in coming February. We look forward to your active participation in that event. You will bring in diversity and that will enrich our celebration.
USG, Dear Friends and Colleagues – I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate our commitment to multilingualism. I also assure you of my delegation’s support and cooperation to any initiatives and efforts that promote multilingualism.
I thank you.