International Mother Language Day

Today, 21 February, is International Mother Language Day, established by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1999 to celebrate languages and promote international understanding through multilingualism and multiculturalism. 

The date, 21 February, represents the day in 1952 when three students from Dhaka University were killed during a demonstration calling for recognition for their language Bangla (also known as Bengali). Please see the UN produced factsheet here for more information. 

Why is this day so important?

Through globalisation, many languages are endangered and under threat of extinction, but they are a crucial aspect of preserving cultures around the world. At least 43% of the world's estimated 6000 spoken languages are endangered. Every two weeks, a language completely disappears, and the cultural and intellectual heritage is gone with it.

Therefore, celebrating this day is important to ensure these languages are not forgotten.

As a multi-lingual law firm, there are speakers of over 35 languages at Shoosmiths. Members of our Embrace Network talk about why this day is important.

Victoria Maisiri tells us about her mother language, Shona…

My mother language is the Shona language, a Bantu language spoken in my birth country of Zimbabwe with its dialects spoken by over ten million native speakers in Zimbabwe, and many other variants across the African continent, the most popular being (Ki)Swahili. 

The Shona language embodies rich cultural traditions that have been passed down through generations by stories, proverbs and song, originally through the 'mbira' instrument made from wood and strips of metal. I’m proud to be a Shona speaker because of the richness woven in Shona expressions and its depth functions as my 'true north,' providing me with a solid sense of identity. A feeling which l have valued more since settling in the UK. I'm proud to be marking this day at the firm, where diversity is championed and ingrained in our values.

Ayah Elomrani shares the history of her mother language, Tamazight…

The Tamazight language is one of the oldest written and spoken languages, used by an indigenous North African populous known as the Amazigh. They span over countries such as Libya, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania and are also present in the Canary Islands. There are already three Amazigh dialects that are extinct: the Judeo-Berber, the Tamazight of Ait Rouadi in Morocco, and the Sened in Tunisia.

A primary reason for the endangerment of this language can be attributed to the widespread adoption of Islam in the region. The Arabs arrived in North Africa around 7 A.D and assimilated with the settlers. As Islam flourished and entered its Golden Age, so did the Arabic language. Naturally, the Amazigh language became seldom used by some natives. Currently, there has been greater awareness to this endangerment, and this has resulted in certain countries taking proactive measures. For example, Algeria, Morocco, and Libya have formally recognised the language as part of their constitution.

André Varela Lopes tells us about his two mother languages, Dutch & Portuguese…

I was born and raised in the Netherlands but come from a Portuguese family. Therefore, I grew up speaking both languages. As a result, both Dutch and Portuguese are my mother languages, but they have meant different things to me throughout my life.

Dutch to me was a symbol of my belonging to the Netherlands – I spoke it to my Dutch friends, at my Dutch school, heard it on the Dutch TV shows and on the streets in Amsterdam. It gave me a sense of belonging to a group wider than just my family and made the Netherlands feel like home.

I only spoke Portuguese to my family but despite this lack of scope, it felt like an important connection to a country and culture that often felt far away or drowned out by the amount of “Dutchness” present. Speaking the language made me feel more Portuguese than the passport that said I was Portuguese.

Although I now live in the UK and have less opportunity to speak either language, they are still important to me and are a reminder of my history and heritage. It is also a joy to occasionally explain to friends’ and colleagues’ funny idioms we have or the unique untranslatable words. The best examples being “Saudade” in Portuguese meaning something like the feeling of melancholic longing of something that is absent or “Gezellig” in Dutch which is the cosy atmosphere or feeling present when you are surrounded by friends.

Sapthami Das shares her story on the Sylheti language…

My mother language is the Sylheti language (perceived as either a dialect of Bengali or a language in its own right). Sylheti shares most linguistic properties with Standard Bengali, with a lexical similarity of 70%. The Sylheti language is grouped as an Eastern Indo-Aryan language and is spoken by an estimated 11 million people.

Sylheti was influenced by ancient Indian languages such as Sanskrit and has also derived a large number of words from Persian and Arabic, making it a unique amalgamation.

My mother language is special to me as it is the language I speak with my family every day and my first ever words were in Sylheti (I only learned how to speak English at nursery). I feel even more passionate about Sylheti because of its unpopularity – for example, one source describes it as a "minoritised, politically unrecognised, and understudied language".

Interestingly, an ex-colleague (who studied languages at university) once overhead me on a phone call with my dad and expressed that my voice sounded entirely different, became much deeper and even angrier when speaking in Sylheti compared to English!


Further information about Shoosmiths’ Diversity & Inclusion work can be found here.


This information is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. It is recommended that specific professional advice is sought before acting on any of the information given. Please contact us for specific advice on your circumstances. © Shoosmiths LLP 2024.



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