By Mihayel Rabo
On February 21, 2021, International Mother Language Day, many non-governmental organizations gathered for a Zoom meeting on mother tongue. In the meeting, distinguished scholars, linguists, and other experts in their respective fields discussed and expressed their opinions on language. Their conclusion was that if languages are not protected, they will disappear. Where repressive dominant cultures and commercial concerns limit the use of local and native languages, migration, wars, and language bans also play a crucial role in the coercion towards dominant languages.
The saying goes: “language is the door to the heart”. Language is the most important cultural element in any society. Societies whose language has disappeared, themselves have also perished over time and disappeared into history.
The United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) declared February 21, International Mother Language Day on 17 November 1999. It was celebrated from February 21, 2000 onwards, and it has increased awareness about the mother tongue, helped advocate multilingualism, and ensured that endangered languages are put on the map and are not forgotten.
Declaring February 21 International Mother Language Day is based on an event that happened 68 years ago. In 1952, Pakistan imposed the Urdu language as the official language on the people of Bangladesh. Bengalis took to the streets after which security forces opened fire on the “Bengali Language Movement” protesters. The day was February 21, 1952. Many university students were killed on that day in the protests. Hence, February 21 is also referred to as Bangladesh Martyrs’ Day.
UN data on mother tongue, concludes that more than 7.000 languages are spoken in the world. According to the UN, 1 language disappears every 2 weeks. Along with the disappearing of that language, the social memory and culture to which the language belonged disappear. According to UNESCO data there are 2.500 languages in danger of extinctionin in the world. When it comes to Turkey, the number of endangered languages is 18.
The measure to fall in the endangered language category is the number of children that speak the language in question. If over the course of a 100 years, the number of children declines and no children are left to speak the native language, that language is in danger. If there are no children left who speak the language, that language is considered dead.
The main thing to do for languages to survive, is to protect the speakers of that language. This applies to all languages, not just a single language. Societies with their own distinctive language must first of all understand the importance of that language within their own family. The language must be spoken in the family and transferred to the children.
In order for their language to live and not disappear, societies must provide language courses and prepare staff to teach the language. Although the mother tongue is firstly learned in the family, languages can also come to life through non-governmental structures and through civil organizations. Both governments and civil society organizations should take responsibility, especially when the language is endangered.
Sufficient budget should be allocated to prevent languages from disappearing. These languages must be taught formally and professionally in schools. Societies should not fear the inclusion of different languages in their school system. It does not evoke separation. On the contrary, it strengthens unity. Multilingual countries stand out as the most culture-rich countries in the world. Countries with one or few spoken languages, are culturally poor and barren countries.
According to the UNESCO World Endangered Languages Atlas, 3 three languages in Turkey – Ubik, Cappadocian Greek Mlahso, and the Mlahso Syriac language – have become extinct. The Hertevin language is in critical danger of disappearing. The Turoyo Sureth Syriac language, and the Ladino, Gagauz, Romani, Western Armenian, Homshetsma, Laz, and Pontic Greek languages are considered to be in serious danger. Adyghe-Circassian, Abkhaz, Kabardino-Circassian, and Zaza are included in the category of “vulnerable” languages.
Today, Syriac is one of the dying languages in Turkey. It brought the works of Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Herodotus, and Homer to the Arab world. Being one of the most important languages in the world in the seventh century, the Syriac language continues to shed blood day by day. Today it is used only mostly within the church and in rural areas. Moreover, only 1 person out of every 100 Syriacs can speak and write the Syriac language. It is a big shame that the courses and curricula established today for teaching Syriac do not receive their due attention.
All languages must live, and no language should disappear. In order for languages to survive, very serious language projects should be set up, education in the mother tongue should be prepared in schools and it should be taught compulsorily. Governments must allocate sufficient funds for native languages to survive. Unless this is done, the most ancient languages of the world will unfortunately disappear in front of everyone’s eyes.
Disclaimer: translated from the original Turkish as published by Gazete Sabro.
The views expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of SyriacPress.