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  • Forfatterens bildeRebekah Olson

International Mother Language Day

Each year, on February 21, we get to celebrate our own native languages thanks to the United Nations' holiday, International Mother Language Day. Let's learn more about it!

Mission statement

To promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world


Though it was first proclaimed by UNESCO in 1999, it would be another eight years before International Mother Language Day would become an official holiday, in 2007, as resolved by the UN General Assembly. The same resolution proclaimed 2008 the International Year of Languages, to promote unity in diversity and international understanding.

Why is it important?

We're now beginning to understand the significance of language not only when it comes to development and intracultural dialogue, but also when it comes to ensuring equal, quality education for speakers of all languages.

Having access to quality education in our native languages gives us all the ability to achieve more and accomplish greater things, which creates a stronger, more sustainable society helmed by science and technology we can all benefit from.

Fostering multilingualism

Each year, UNESCO decides on a new focus for International Mother Language Day. This year, in 2021, that focus is on how languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion and on the Sustainable Development Goals, which focus on leaving no one behind (culturally and, inherently, linguistically).

In observance of IML Day this year, UNESCO is calling on policymakers, educators, and guardians to strengthen their commitments to multilingual education and inclusion in education to advance education recovery after COVID. This effort is also meant to lay the foundation for the upcoming International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032), which will focus on multilingualism in the context of indigenous peoples’ development.

Protect linguistic diversity to protect the planet

Much like the planet that houses them, languages are under increasing threat due to globalization processes, and many are going extinct altogether. With their complex implications for how we identify, interact, learn, and develop, languages are of strategic importance for the survival of humanity, and consequently, the planet.

When languages fade, we lose more than just lingual diversity, we lose traditions, memories, ways of thinking, and, most importantly, ways of problem-solving.

When a culture loses its way to talk about the biodiversity in its area, it loses its way to care for and protect that biodiversity, and ultimately that biodiversity is put at risk. (More on the fascinating studies that show this, performed by linguists, sociologists, and climate scientists, in a future article.)

Every two weeks, a language goes extinct, and with it, an entire cultural and intellectual heritage. Of the 6,000+ currently spoken languages, 43% are endangered, and only a few hundred languages are used in the education systems of the world. And in the digital arena? Less than a hundred. This matters for how we reach out to smaller linguistic communities to spread climate awareness, how we share sustainability information online as far more people have access to smartphones than to higher education.

We cannot alleviate the massively important threat of climate change without everyone, and that means working to increase the availability of education in the native languages of everyone. And that's just what UNESCO is doing to celebrate IML Day this year!


What can I do?

For a list of 12 things we can all do to celebrate IML Day, check out this great article from Cultural Survival, an organization that celebrates the lives and cultures of Indigenous People.

That feeling when we've lost our ability to understand each other

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