Music, poetry and cultural performances from around the globe portrayed the power of mother languages to promote intercultural dialogue and preserve heritage, as Secretary-General Patricia Scotland joined hundreds in London to commemorate Language Martyrs Day and Mother Language Day.
Steeped in rich Bengali history, the day has been observed since 1952 when students were killed while protesting for their right to speak in their mother tongue.
The event to commemorate their sacrifice and the importance of mother languages was organised by the High Commission of Bangladesh in collaboration with the UK National Commission for UNESCO and other high commissions.
“Twenty first of February is a red letter day in the history of the Bengali Nation,” Bangladesh High Commissioner Saida Tasneem said in her opening remarks.
“In 1952 Bengali students made the supreme sacrifice with their lives to realise our right to speak in our mother tongue, Bangla, as a state language. Every year since 1952 we honour our language martyrs by paying them our tributes with our songs our flowers and our literature.
“But 21st February is much more than Bangla Language Martyrs Day, it is a symbol of our 2000 years of old Buddhist, Pali and Indo-Aryan Sanskrit-based linguistic heritage and literature. It is a symbol of our culture, and most importantly, a symbol of our secular, progressive and inclusive Bengali values.”
According to UNESCO figures, at least 43% of the estimated 6000 languages currently spoken around the world are endangered. Speaking at the event, Secretary-General Scotland stressed the important role mother languages play in education, intercultural dialogue and culture.
“In the Commonwealth we are aware that languages, especially mother tongue languages, are powerful instruments for preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage as peoples,” she said. “Indeed, there is growing awareness of the vital role mother languages play in development, by adding to cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue.”
She added, “Mother languages can also strengthen cooperation towards attaining quality education for all, and building inclusive knowledge societies that preserve cultural inheritances.”
The Secretary-General also used the opportunity to show her solidarity for those affected by the devastating fire in Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, which is reported to have claimed dozens of lives.
She said, “On behalf of the Commonwealth family, may I express to the people of Bangladesh our sadness and deep sympathy at the loss of life, the injury and the destruction caused by the tragic fire in Dhaka.
“Our hearts go out to all those affected, and we stand in solidarity with those who must cope with bereavement and loss, wounds to mind or body, and to the emergency services personnel and others assisting in the aftermath of such a dreadful event.”