Happy International Mother Language Day! It’s one of those UNESCO/UN labelled events, like last year’s International Year of Quinoa, that has a noble goal but very little in the way of actual recognition. International Mother Language Day has been around since 2000 and is aimed at promoting linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism — and it is especially important in Australia, where our indigenous languages are under threat.

My home is in the Northern Territory, where English is spoken in proportionally fewer households than any other state or territory in Australia. I love the linguistic diversity here in my hometown of Katherine. Just today, a Warlpiri woman I know asked me if I was well in her language, and I mumbled back the two words I know in Warlpiri. There’s the popular lunch spot run by an Australian-Croatian family, whose matriarch runs the kitchen speaking mostly Croatian. And I smile when one of the girls who makes me coffee at my regular cafe is visited by her family, who bundle in and speak to her in Kunwinjku.

But languages other than English generally have a hard time in Australia, especially indigenous ones. Many have already disappeared, and most of the remainder are endangered. Northern Australia has been classified as a global hotspot for language loss, and the original languages of this land are still trying to work their way into our constitution. Languages don’t disappear just because parents decide not to speak them to their kids; there are always significant historical, political and social forces at play. In Australia, some of those forces impacting upon indigenous languages have been massacres and frontier violence, explicit denigration and discrimination, lack of adequate policy to protect or promote their use and the prestige of English in media and mainstream society.

The use of indigenous languages in school is also a perennial hot topic. It seems that in our country the stronger an indigenous language is, the more politicians and policymakers want it gone, seeing it only as an impediment to things like scoring well on NAPLAN tests and getting the sorts of jobs that white people think indigenous people should have. The Northern Territory Education Department’s recently commissioned review of indigenous education is copping criticism for its approach to Aboriginal languages in education; the review suggests Aboriginal children can be taught English in the same way as non-Aboriginal children, even if they don’t speak English at home. I wrote about this issue on my own blog, and others are pointing out similar issues.

At a recent public meeting, the report’s author, Bruce Wilson, spoke movingly of the rights of children to a good education and to become literate. I reminded him that they also have the right to be educated in their own language. He said he “didn’t think that was true”, but Australia’s support of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (see article 14) means they do. Having such people who are ignorant of language issues creating our language-related policies means International Mother Language Day is an important day, personally, socially and politically.

“… there is no more intimate relationship than the one between your own thoughts and ideas and the language in your head that helps form and articulate those thoughts.”

For the Australians who have English as their mother tongue, there’s plenty to celebrate, and we get to do so pretty much every day. But also spare a thought for the other languages spoken in Australia — there are dozens and dozens and dozens of them. I had an interesting conversation with a cab driver who emigrated from Poland decades ago and we chatted about how much he still uses Polish. My next cabbie was a guy who arrived from Bangladesh a few years before and spoke Bangla as a mother tongue, which incidentally is the language mentioned on the UNESCO site for International Mother Language Day: 62 years ago, Bangla-speaking students were shot and killed in Dhaka while protesting plans to use Urdu as the official language of what was later to become independent Bangladesh.

That’s how important a mother tongue is — there is no more intimate relationship than the one between your own thoughts and ideas and the language in your head that helps form and articulate those thoughts. It’s a shame that pressures exerted by Australian society have ruptured that relationship for so many people, especially indigenous Australians.

So today, give International Mother Language Day some thought. If you speak something other than English, today, more than any other day, use it. Or if you speak only English, try finding out what languages your office mates speak. Or your classmates or students — you will definitely be in for some surprises. As for me, I’ll be listening out for what other languages I hear on the street/bus/TV/radio and try to not be shy about taking an interest in what languages are spoken by people I talk to today. And I’m going to try to remember to speak as much and as many of the other languages I know, even if it’s just to annoyingly make the point that we don’t need English for everything, all the time.

Peter Fray

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