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Mother Tongue in a Multilingual World – Editor’s Note

Feb 13, 2021 | Front And Center | 2 comments

Amy Tan, the Chinese-American writer, mentioned in her 1990 essay Mother Tongue that language “can evoke an emotion, a visual image, a complex idea, or a simple truth.” Languages are unique that way, for they represent not only the rhythm of people’s thoughts but also the nuances of their heritage. There are certain words in most languages that are simply untranslatable for they capture a cultural tone that cannot be expressed in any other language. Even today when English has become our staple diet, expressing ourselves in our mother tongue once in a while when ecstatic or infuriated beyond reason, is most preferred. Its self-soothing like nibbling on comfort food we have grown up with but routinely deprive ourselves of to adjust to and survive in a globalized world.
The Antonym dedicates its Front and Center for February to International Mother Language Day, observed on February 21sy by UNESCO to honor linguistic heritage and diversity. The day is celebrated around the globe to promote multilingualism, and to protect mother languages, but it started as a tribute to the historic movement of the Bengali people to protect their mother tongue in 1952.
What unfolded in Bangladesh back in 1952, highlights how culture, heritage, and at times power are deeply enmeshed with language. A quick look at the political history of the Indian subcontinent informs us that when India gained independence from the British in 1947 it also got divided into two nations—India and Pakistan. In 1948 Pakistan government announced Urdu as the national language and that sparked a protest in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). The protest swelled with time and by 1952 it became so big that the police opened fire at protesters at the University of Dhaka. Four students lost their lives. The language martyrs were not forgotten by Bangladesh. The nation erected Shaheed Minar to commemorate their sacrifice.
A few Canadian Bangladeshis took it upon themselves to make sure that history does not engulf the significance of 1952. It is because of their enterprise that 21st February was announced as a special day for mother tongues by UNESCO.
As The Antonym team brainstormed ideas around the topic of mother tongue, certain questions stood out boldly and made us wonder about their significance in present times.

Is propagation of mother tongues a way to inspire world solidarity based on understanding, tolerance, and dialogue?
What is the importance of multiple languages in a world contracted by globalization and communication technologies?
Do languages bear the lopsided burden of preserving and passing the baton of unique heritages from generation to generation?
Has the task of continuing a linguistic heritage stopped being fun and become a chore, instead?
Is it true that when a language vanishes, a part of the world’s tapestry of cultural diversity also disappears?

We bring for you a diverse collection of essays, poems, and stories that try to find answers to these underlying questions in this month’s Front and Center and will be published through next few weeks. The short stories and the poems signify the intensity of the struggle for protecting a language. The essays bring out the struggle with languages and disappearance of a few. Conversation with translators bring out the dilemma and delight that goes with every literary work that transcends the linguistic boundary.  A great addition to this compilation is a diverse panel we bring together to discuss International Mother Language Day. Pina Piccolo and Lance Hansen participates from Italy. Lucia Cupertino joins us from Chile. Sumitro Banerjee participates from India. Dipen Bhattacharya participates from California.
2020 unanimously crowned the annus horribilis, has been a turning point for all nations as they grappled with a raging pandemic that killed so many. Forced isolation turned many of us inwards and gave us the time to contemplate existential questions we tend to avoid. 2021 has ushered in hope with new vaccines coming to our aid. But has it equipped us with a newfound ability to separate the more important messages from the delirious noise around us?

What do we want to say now and in which language?

Sreya Sarkar

Sreya Sarkar

Sreya Sarkar is a public policy professional based out of Boston who has previously worked as a poverty alleviation specialist in U.S. think tanks. Currently, she writes non-fiction articles and  op-eds for Indian policy blogs and magazines.

2 Comments

  1. Nandini Bhattacharya

    A wonderful issue and a superb idea. Would like to see more like this, please.

    Nandini Bhattacharya, author, nandinibhattacharyawrites.com

    Reply
    • Sreya Sarkar

      Thank you for your interest and encouragement. We have some wonderful topics lined up for the coming few months. Please keep coming back to our website.

      Reply

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