Language is empowerment: UNESCO Bangkok and Bangladesh Embassy host Mother Language Day celebration

Bangladesh cultural dance performer at UNESCO Bangkok International Mother Language Day event.

Language is empowerment: UNESCO Bangkok and Bangladesh Embassy host Mother Language Day celebration

“Language plays a big role in realizing inclusion or reinforcing the exclusion of children in the learning process,” said UNESCO Bangkok Director (a.i) Maki Hayashikawa at the opening of an event to commemorate International Mother Language Day 2018. 

An estimated 2.3 billion people, nearly 40% of the world’s population, lack access to education in their own language, Ms Hayashikawa said. “Unfortunately, many indigenous and minority children are forced to attend school and receive instruction in a language that is not their own and that they do not understand.”

This has a direct impact on education quality. “Even for those who make it to school, one-third of primary school-aged children, or approximately 250 million children out of 650 million worldwide, are not learning the basics whether in school or not.”

Mother-tongue based multilingual education is effective in addressing this disparity and improving education quality for minority language learners, she said. 

Russian dance troupe at UNESCO Bangkok International Mother Language Day celebration

UNESCO Bangkok and the Embassy of Bangladesh in Thailand co-hosted the commemoration to spotlight these challenges under this year’s theme, “Linguistic diversity and multilingualism count for sustainable development.” The event brought together more than 150 participants to the UNESCO Bangkok office, including the ambassadors of Cambodia, Columbia, Czech Republic, Myanmar, Nigeria, Portugal, the Russian Federation and Kazakhstan. 

The event saw the launch of the “Salzburg Statement for a Multilingual World” by the Salzburg Global Seminar, a nonprofit organization that promotes high-level discussions on global issues. The statement is a call to action for policy-makers around the world to uphold multilingualism and language rights, including the benefits of mother tongue-based multilingual education. (Statement in multiple languages - launch video below). 

Dr. Kirk Person from SIL International represented the Asia-Pacific Mother tongue-based multilingual education working group on the statement's drafting committee. UNESCO Bangkok and UNICEF EAPRO co-chair the working group. 

H.E. Saida Muna Tasneem, the Ambassador of Bangladesh to Thailand, shared the background of the day. The date of International Mother Language Day, 21 February, was initially suggested to the UNESCO General Conference by a delegation from Bangladesh that sought to commemorate the memories of the students who died struggling to protect their native Bangla language in 1952. 


The ambassador reaffirmed Bangladesh’s unwavering commitment to promoting linguistic diversity and multilingualism within its borders and beyond, relaying Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s message on the occasion of 2018 IMLD: “Let all multilingual people be united, let the almost defunct languages of the world be revived in their respective communities and let the globe be colored with diverse languages and cultures.”

She also highlighted the work of the International Mother Language Institute in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which became a UNESCO Category 2 Centre in 2016. “The institute is moving forward with its mission and vision to preserve world languages, research their anthropological roots and diversity, and promote cultural connectivity, global peace and understanding and sustainable development through multilingualism,” she said. 

Thailand’s Deputy Permanent Secretary of Education Watanaporn Ra-Ngubtook said the country remains committed to making cultural and linguistic diversity a cornerstone of development in Thailand. 

"Our nation is home to 72 unique ethno-lingusitic groups – a wealth of diversity that is among our national treasures,” she said. “Recognizing the different linguistic and cultural backgrounds among our people, the Thai government has worked hard to protect and promote this cultural diversity.” 

Ms Watanaporn, who is also the Secretary-General of the Thai National Commission for UNESCO, highlighted Thailand’s advances in this area, including Mahidol University and UNICEF’s Patani Malay-Thai Bi/Multilingual Education programme which dramatically improved the academic achievement of Malay learners in grade K-6. In 2016, the programme received the UNESCO King Sejong Prize for Literacy.  


Dr Person from SIL cited the success of the Mahidol/UNICEF initiative, saying that it provided clear proof of the dramatic change for the better that the MTB-MLE approach can have in learners’ lives.

“We need to make the often invisible issue of language barriers in education visible and address them through mother tongue-based multilingual education,” he said. 

In keeping with the event’s theme of how language diversity can advance peaceful, sustainable development, Dr Kriengkrai Watanasawad from Thammasat University, stressed the link between language and intangible cultural heritage.

“Many forms of intangible cultural heritage are preserved in language – if you preserve the language, you can preserve that heritage,” he said. 

Reinforcing the connection between culture and language, the event concluded with a series of cultural performances arranged by the embassies of Bangladesh, Belgium,  China, Colombia, France, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Russia as well as a troupe from Thailand.


Photos: Luo Xian