February 21 was declared as the International Mother Language Day by UNESCO in 1999; since 2000, it has has been observed all over the world
As the world observes International Mother Language Day on February 21, I am once again reminded of the importance of language. This day has been declared as the International Mother Language Day by UNESCO in 1999, and since 2000, it has has been observed all over the world to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
History has it that when the then government of Pakistan declared Urdu as the national language in 1948, it sparked protest among the Bengali speaking majority of the country and in 1952, on February 21, four students were killed in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Pakistan then) over the language controversy during a massive protest held by the University of Dhaka. Hence the date of International Mother Language Day -- February 21 -- commemorates the day the four students were killed while protesting and protecting their mother language- Bengali in Bangladesh.
It holds such significance that a day like this has been set aside to remind each one of us how precious one’s mother language is, which also brings to mind that there are roughly about 6500 languages in the world. While that number sounds quite overwhelming, the alarming reality is that linguistic diversity is also faced with an increasing threat with more and more languages disappearing. Study also shows that 40 percent of the global population does not have access to education in the language that they speak or can understand.
When it comes to language, an interesting fact is that according to the 2011 census, Nagaland is the most linguistically diverse state in India with 14 languages and 17 dialects. We are so diverse, language-wise, that most often, it becomes literally impossible for us to communicate in any other language other than English or Nagamese.
When we were kids, my paternal grandfather insisted that we speak in Poula, which is my mother tongue. It is one of the dialects of the Chakhesang tribe and predominantly spoken by the people of Razeba range under Phek district. Having moved to Kohima as early as I can remember, whenever grandfather came visiting from village, he would always remind us that we are not speaking enough of our mother tongue.
We grew up mostly with people from Kohima. Then, our small neighbourhood was also made up of only few Angami families. We went to a school located in the heart of Kohima village and most of our classmates were Angamis. We had friends who were Angamis. The reason why we picked the Tenyidie language quite easily and we spoke Tenyidie at home, in school, social gatherings, almost everywhere. We still do, especially among us, siblings. All of us speak the language very fluently, and in that typical Kewhimia tone, that people sometimes mistake us to be one of them. Or at least think that one of our parents must be from the Angami tribe.
However at home, when we converse with our parents, we would automatically start talking in our mother tongue- Poula. I don’t remember how I learnt Nagamese but then it is commonly spoken by almost every Naga. I guess, somehow it became direly necessary for everybody to learn this common language, that, as a matter of fact, enables people from every tribe of Nagaland to communicate with each other.
Back in school, we had Hindi as a subject, which, I suppose, most of us took for granted and we were more than happy just to get the pass mark. To this day, I regret not being able to learn it well as a student. Because it’s always at your advantage if you learn an additional language. Language connects people; it works like magic. Even when you run into a stranger but discover that you speak a common language, the whole experience of meeting that person becomes different.
Language is so powerful that we must continue to learn new languages at every given opportunity. Learn as many languages as you can, but we must never forget our own because as a friend of mine unwaveringly says, your mother tongue is part of yourself. It is an essential part of your culture and your identity.
I never understood why elders in the village always made a fuss when they spot us talking in Nagamese or English or a different language while visiting our native village. It would make us feel like we have committed a crime. But in retrospection, I think they knew better. When we felt like conversing in another language than our very own, we spoke our mother tongue, thanks to these elders in the village, who consciously or unconsciously safeguarded our mother tongue.
I think there is a certain charm and a certain beauty in every language. There are times my sister and I talk or laugh over some phrases that is exclusive to our mother tongue and we try to translate them to English or Nagamese, just to share more laughs with those who don’t understand our language, but it just doesn’t come out as funny, or as beautiful when translated.
No matter how many words we try to think of in that other language, sometimes, when translated, some profound sayings in my mother tongue just turn into some simple lines and become words without depth. Time and again, when faced with such a situation, my sister and I would talk about the need to preserve these beautiful and amazing aspects of our mother tongue. Not just by using them when the occasion arises, but by way of writing them down so that maybe, one day, our children and our children’s children will not forget how amazing our mother tongue is.
Today, a common trend I notice in many homes in towns and cities is that children are more comfortable talking in English/Nagamese at home, church, school, or wherever they go. Reasons like inter-tribe marriage (because of the language differences) and other factors are definitely there but I think we all must strive to preserve our own mother tongue because I can see we are already losing some precious parts of it, bit by bit. Learn as many languages as you can, but never forget your own.
(Vishü Rita Krocha is a poet, author and a journalist by profession with experience in the field for over 10 years. She also runs a home-based publication house called PenThrill Publication House. Views expressed are her own)