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Staying in touch with our mother tongues

Thoughts on language rights and language learning as International Mother Language Day is observed.

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa, Ontario on Nov. 29, 2016.
Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press/AP
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  • Ruth Walker

In case Google Calendar hasn’t reminded you: We’re coming up on International Mother Language Day on Feb. 21, an observance meant to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism, according to the United Nations. 

Why Feb. 21? It marks the day, back in 1952, when students in what is now Dhaka, Bangladesh, demonstrated to get Bengali recognized as a national language. Police opened fire, killing a number of the demonstrators – it’s unclear how many, presumably because of the chaos of the whole episode.

Bangladesh, back then, was known as East Bengal. It was known as East Pakistan from 1956 until 1971, which is when it became a separate country. Language rights were an issue in the struggle for independence. The memorial to the “language martyrs,” as they are known, is one of Dhaka’s most important monuments.

Around the world, the right to education and public services in one’s mother tongue, and in some cases, even the right to speak that language, can be fraught issues. 

But first a few words on the official name of the day: I would have thought the standard English idiom here is “mother tongue.” It has counterparts – “loan translations” or “calques” – in a number of other languages. 

Calque is from a French word, calquer, meaning to copy by tracing. The Online Etymology Dictionary identifies this as a sort of word cousin to our English caulk (yes, as in your bathtub). The idea is that you “trace” along the line where the tub meets the wall. But I digress.

Multilingualism is not without economic and social costs. We hear nowadays that some Americans long for the days when they could call their bank or whatever without having to hear an option of “Press 2 for Spanish.” (Hey, when I lived in Toronto, if I called my bank, it was “Press 2 for Chinese” – at least that’s what I thought they were saying.)

And Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, son of the architect of their country’s policy of bilingualism, found himself in warm, if not exactly hot, water recently after responding in French to questions posed in English at a public meeting in Quebec.

Another perspective on current “mother tongue” questions is afforded by a recent study led by Dutch researchers. It suggests that people never lose their mother tongue, even if they move away from their native lands as infants. The researchers studied a group of 25 Korean-born adults who had been adopted and raised in the Netherlands.

“The study was the first of its kind in showing that children who switch languages as toddlers are given an advantage to pick up their native tongue decades later even if they think they have forgotten the language,” according to an article on the research.

It’s an interesting finding on language learning. But the fact that Korean-Dutch adoptions are numerous enough for scientific study is itself a data point in the story of the global melting pot.