What is your mother tongue? At face value, the answer appears straightforward. A Hongkonger born into a Cantonese family may easily identify Cantonese as their mother tongue.
Mother tongue or mother language is a widely used compound – Sanskrit/Hindi, matru bhasha; Latin, lingua materna; Old Icelandic, móður-tunga; Middle French, langage maternel – that refers to the language first acquired by an individual: their native language. But it can also be a language associated with an individual’s ethnic group or their dominant language, or one they identify with later in life. And someone raised in a household where Hokkien, Malay and English are spoken equally, or who has Hakka- or Urdu-speaking parents and becomes Cantonese-dominant through school and peers, may have more than one mother tongue.
Many minority-language communities shift from their heritage or community language – say, Chiuchow – to the dominant language of the territory – here, Cantonese – or a language of wider communication, such as English. Extreme shifts may result in language endangerment – the Manchu language, for example, has few surviving speakers in China; most Manchus now speak Putonghua. With language loss comes the loss of intangible cultural heritage, including rituals, oral traditions, performing arts and traditional ecological knowledge.
In response to growing awareness of the rapid loss of languages – it’s predicted between 50 and 90 per cent of the more than 6,000 languages spoken globally at present will become extinct within 50 to 100 years – Unesco, in 1999, proclaimed February 21 International Mother Language Day. The date represents the day in 1952 when several university students in Dhaka, demonstrating for recognition of Bangla as one of the two national languages of what was then East Pakistan, were shot dead by police.
In a climate where intolerance and exclusion are rife, we should be mindful of not romanticising or privileging one language at the expense of others. Rather, the recognition afforded to any language should be within the context of diversity and pluralism. International Mother Language Day’s aim is to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism, with the 2017 theme highlighting sustainable futures through multilingual education.
On Tuesday, to mark the day, you may do something to symbolically showcase your language – an online initiative, the Mother Language Meme Challenge (mememl.org), for example, invites submissions of a meme in one’s mother tongue. The act of respecting and supporting diversity and inclusivity, however, should be an everyday practice.