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Language & national identity – Celebrating Mother Language Day

Thursday 18 February 2016 - 11:46am

Over the last 18 months, PEN International has been running a project across four countries and three continents to develop mother language publishing. Sponsored by UNESCO’s International Fund for Cultural Diversity the project brings together research and capacity building elements, working with PEN Centres in Kenya, Serbia, Haiti and Nigeria to strengthen the minority language creative publishing industries in these countries.

PEN has long recognised that language and mother-tongue education and equality plays a vital role in relation to identity, communication, social integration, education and development. Access to mother tongue education advances freedom expressions, linguistic diversity, peace-building and gender equality. It is estimated that without measures to protect and promote minority and endangered languages, half of the approximately 7,000 languages spoken today will disappear by the end of the 21st century.

At PEN’s 77th PEN International Congress, the Assembly of Delegates approved the Girona Manifesto on Linguistic Rights – a tool to aid the dissemination and implementation of the Universal Declaration on Linguistic Rights (UDLR) – developed by PEN International’s Translation and Linguistic Rights Committee (TLRC) in May 2011. Fifteen years earlier, the TLRC had led a coalition of civil-society and international organizations (including UNESCO) in developing the UDLR at the 1998 World Conference on Linguistic Rights in Barcelona.

This year’s theme for International Mother Language Day focuses on the role of mother language education as promoted in the sustainable development agenda – Agenda 2030. The theme focuses on the importance of appropriate languages of instruction, usually mother tongues, in early years of schooling. It is essential that formal and non-formal education deliver quality education for all learners by taking a multilingual approach, which has great potential for achieving development goal 4 of the Agenda 2030 – to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education that promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. For more information on mother language education, see UNESCO’s work in this area.

There are numerous issues associated with language use that sit at the heart of freedom of expression. Among them are inclusivity, to allow the full participation in society of linguistic minorities. Effective participation can only be assured by access to high-quality mother-tongue education, the promotion of linguistic diversity as a matter of government policy and a much wider translation of minority language literature through the allocation of appropriate resources.

There is a wide breadth of research that demonstrates the value of mother tongue education in promoting freedom of expression, linguistic diversity, peace-building and gender equality, to name a few. Specifically access to mother-tongue education can:

1. Improve access to and quality of education for children from minority communities;
2. Promote equality and empowerment of girls and women from minority communities;
3. Enhance better use of resources;
4. Increase dialogue and interaction between the learner and the teacher;
5. Strengthen the cognitive aspect of learning;
6. Improve communication and delivery of public services ;
7. Contribute to stability, conflict-prevention and peace-building;
8. Promote cultural diversity and equality.

PEN International has been working closely with many of its Centres around the world where there is particular focus on access to mother-tongue education, linguistic rights and diversity as part of its civil-society programme:

PEN Zambia is promoting writing and speaking in indigenous languages among Zambian youth through creative writing mentorship programmes at school PEN Clubs and workshops for pupils aged 12 to 21 to create platforms for national dialogue on indigenous languages in the country. Read more about the project here.

PEN South Africa has partnered with PRESA to produce multilingual content and high quality reading materials for young children who are not English speakers. The translation project aims to provide access children to books and literature in their mother tongue. Read more about the project here.

PEN Afrikaans Is running writing projects across seven North Cape towns by organising a series of intensive creative workshops, designed to capture the rich tradition of oral storytelling in the region. The project not only ensures that these histories are recorded but also brings these stories to a wider audience by publishing in Afrikaans. Read more about the project here.

PEN Philippines is building on its previous civil-society work by running a series of workshops for teachers in secondary and further education, focusing on concerns related to mother language education and literature in the country. Read more about the project here.

PEN Wales Cymru is working with Kurdish PEN to support Kurdish linguistic rights by running creative writing and translation workshops in selected schools in south-eastern Turkey. The project will focus on oral folk tales and the linguistic rights of the Kurdish dialects via translation. Read more about the project here.

PEN Malawi has set up a translation committee to translate essential materials focusing on core issues such as of gender, entrepreneurship, climate change, disability and other health issues into Chichewa, one the main languages of the country. Most of the official information in the country is currently released in English. Read more about the project here.

Each year, on International Mother Language Day, PEN International campaigns of behalf of writers who have been persecuted, attacked, harassed or even killed for their work on mother-tongue language equality. This year PEN is campaigning for imprisoned Eritrean writer and mother-tongue education activist Idris Said Aba Arre who has been arbitrarily detained In Eritrea, incommunicado, in a secret location since his arrest in 2001. Take action or Aba Arre here.