U. celebrates 13th national language day
Faculty, students and language and literature experts spoke about the influence and diversity of language in societies across the world in the United Nations’ 13th annual International Mother Language Day yesterday through panel discussions and a musical performance.
More than 35 attendees listened to the music of the kora, a West African 21-string harp, as people gathered in the Teleconference Lecture Hall at the Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus to celebrate this year’s theme of “Mother tongue language-based multilingual strategies for education in Africa.”
Maryam Borjian, coordinator of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures Program, said the day is held on Feb. 21 each year to promote the awareness of linguistics and multilingualism.
The United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization first commemorated the day in 1999, and it is recognized worldwide.
“This is an annual day, and the international mother language theme this year is mother tongue in … inclusive education,” said H. Ekkehard Wolff, a professor emeritus in the Department of African Studies at the University of Leipzig. “In Africa, splitting the society into the privileged elite society [is] marked though a particular language.”
He said there is a cultural split between the postcolonial parts of Africa, which are heavily influenced by European culture, and traditional African parts especially in terms of “mother tongue.”
“Mother tongue” in the European context explains the dominance of one language in a society. The principal language is enforced through early socialization and early childhood, Wolff said.
But “mother tongue” also has a political ideological dimension and is linked with national identity. Using a single “mother tongue” in a motherland suggests there could only be one language, he said. It can also be used as a propaganda term to imply a single language on a minority.
“Mother tongue” in the African context and society do not necessarily have to do with the language of a mother or father. Rather, it is the language of early socialization context in the village, Wolff said.
He said children in Africa often grow up in a multilingual environment.
“An African child can easily grow up with several mother tongues. On average, there are 40 to 45 languages per country,” Wolff said. “This average is silly because it tells you nothing. … It doesn’t mean that every person speaks all the languages of the territory.”
In Africa, there are four official language classifications—the first includes local mother languages. The second is composed of local linguae francae and regional linguae francae, and the third language includes national language. The fourth classification is official languages, which are concentrated from ex-colonial languages.
There is an emerging fifth stratum, where new urban vernaculars are emerging from certain type of language associated with delinquency. This type of language is poring over into higher society parts of Africa and becoming the dialect of urban youngsters, Wolff said.
“It clearly is a reaction of urban youth to postcolonialism to disown the ex-colonial language and distance themselves from their colonial owners,” he said.
Wolff said inside Africa, there is a “brainwash” effect of missionary and colonial education in the school system, where educators are copying as much of the ex-colonial motherland culture and language and pasting it as superior to the indigenous religion.
Another issue within the education system in Africa is how to implement “mother tongue”-based multilingual strategies in education when the education system is based on an ex-colonial system.
Wolff said there is a list of myths about teaching English and other ex-colonial languages as a second language in the early-level schools in Africa.
One myth is that children learn their first language by the time they are 6 years old when they go to school, he said. Meanwhile, this is not true: It is more likely 12 years old, he said.
Wolff said children do not learn their second language more quickly and easily than adults, but they do have better pronunciation than most adults.
Another misconception, Wolff said, is the more time students spend in an environment where a second language is spoken, the quicker they learn a language.
He said students need four to seven years — rather than one to two — of learning a language before they can grasp the language.
This problem is still ongoing, Wolff said. Another core issue is also being studied on whether a child should learn French through a French system or through their native tongue.
In addition to Wolff’s lecture, the event also featured a panel of AMESALL professors and activists who fought for the freedom of speech.
Nuran Nabi, councilman for Plainsboro Township, N.J., said the International Mother Language Day originated from the Language Movement, a series of freedom fights that began in Bangladesh.
He said when he was studying in Bangladesh, he was a part of the freedom fights in the Bangladesh Liberation War.
Students at the Dhaka University in Bangladesh held a protest on Feb. 21, 1952 in favor of Bangla as the national language. Police killed 12 and injured many more. Of those 12 killed, only five could be identified, Nabi said.
“The proclamation of Feb. 21 [as International Mother Language Day] by UNESCO attests to the world community recognition of Bengali community as martyrs,” he said. “We showed to the world the power of the ‘mother language.’”