International Mother Language Day, celebrated on 21 February since 2000, is a linguistic carnival promoting the right of every child to speak and be educated in his or her mother tongue.
Children are born into this floral feast of language, culture and heritage, the fragrance of which builds character, shapes identity and defines belonging. It builds diverse societies respectful of difference and inhabited by interculturally-competent individuals eager to discover the Other through dialogue and tolerance. Snuff out the mother’s lullabies and the bedtime stories that carry a people’s history, and linguistic castration, cultural alienation and a stunted identity ensues.
Language is a cultural safety deposit box, and those that speak it possess the magic key. Yet many children lose that key as they learn to belong to another culture, as they learn the history of another people, as they become successful adults in an adopted, public, yet beloved language. All positive, of course, but why do these children, when they become adults, regret the day they refused to speak to mum or dad in their language; why do they reproach mum or dad for not giving them the means to open the box; why do they invest time and effort in night classes to learn their mother language? A sense of loss or betrayal, a feeling that a part of the puzzle is missing, an acute awareness of belonging to two worlds, the need to re-established links with the past…? Ironically, children are born with that magic key and then well-meaning adults take it away for political, economic and educational reasons!
However, with bilingual individuals, we need to go beyond the designation of a single mother tongue: the answer to “What is your mother language?” might start with “Hmmm…, Ahh…; Well, it depends.’ Bilinguals either have two mother languages or bilingualism as a mother tongue. As proficiency in their languages depends on various factors (amount and quality of exposure, consistency in language use with a particular person or in a specific context, the need to adapt to changing circumstances and positive attitudes to mother cultures) bilinguals may give their languages equal mother-language status in spite of varying proficiency levels. A young 11 year-old trilingual boy designated Pilipino as his mother language even though he admitted he only knew a few words in this language. The “mother tongue”, literally the language mum spoke to the baby in the cradle, isn’t necessarily the language the child has become literate in, or the language used for schooling and work, yet it is the linguistic float that carries the affective, the cultural and the familial fragrances that link childhood experiences to the construction of adulthood.