Language colours the world

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Mother language | © UN Photo Eskinder Debebe

21.2.2017 – If you visit the Himba tribe in Namibia, people will have a hard time understanding what you mean by the colour ‘blue’. You, on the other hand, will be put to shame by the ease with which the locals discern the colour green into a myriad of shades, seemingly invisible to your eyes. But with time you can learn to see the colours.

February 21 marks International Mother Language Day, when Member States of the United Nations are reminded, ‘to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world’ (A/RES/61/266).

This year the International Day is devoted to multilingual education. This means that children all over the world, should not only be given access to education in international or regional tongues, but also in the mother language, that they best understand.

Mother Language Day logo

“Education and information in the mother language is absolutely essential to improving learning and developing confidence and self-esteem, which are among the most powerful engines of development,” says Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, in her statement on the International Day.

She highlights that the International Mother Language Day is an opportunity to mobilize for the Sustainable Development Goals, particularly goal number 4 on inclusive and quality education and lifelong learning for all.

Mastery of the mother language - whether it is spoken by mouth or by hand - is the best way to acquire basic skills of reading, writing and numeracy. In this way quality multilingual education can facilitate the ability to learn new languages, enrich our understanding of the world and promote societal participation on both local and global levels.

“Languages express who we are, they structure our thoughts and identities,” explains Irina Bokova. “There can be no authentic dialogue or effective international cooperation without respect for linguistic diversity, which opens up true understanding of every culture.”

Currently, however, only a few hundred of the world’s approximately 7000 languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and public domains, while less than a hundred languages exist in the digital space.

Furthermore, more than half of the world’s languages are likely to die out within a few generations. And although 96% of these languages are only spoken by a mere 4% of the world’s population, their fading from existence could also mean the disappearance of certain cultural traditions, expressions and ways of thinking. Perhaps even of colours and shades that we could otherwise have learned to see.