Today, February 21st, we celebrate International Mother Language Day.
The goal is to celebrate multilingualism and cultural diversity every year. UNESCO first declared it in 1999, and here I am, 21 years later, sitting at the kitchen counter, overlooking the city of Berlin and writing about it.
Some thoughts about languages.
Languages intimately connect with politics, history, identity and our sense of belonging.
Languages, like art, also invoke subjective feelings in each of us. “I find this language so beautiful!”, “It just sounds like music to me”, “The culture behind it is fascinating!”, “Have you looked at that script? It looks so curvy, round and perfect!”. Languages can also trigger negative feelings: “I hate the sound of that”, “I’m sorry, but it just sounds like a drunk language”, “I just can’t force myself to like it”, “It sounds so rude”.
The subjectivity of language and the way it ties up with identity are the reason we can develop such complex relationships with our own mother tongues.
The weight of history on language.
Our feelings about our mother tongues and dialects can be difficult.
You may have been born in a country that was once colonized. The influence colonialism had on language destruction, language submission and self-loathing is well-documented. I regret to say my country has had a huge role in that part of history (Portugal).
How many hundreds of languages have we lost because of the brute forces of colonizers? How many children were told they were dumb when they spoke any other language than that of the colonizer? Slapped, punished, humiliated?
These feelings carry on from generation to generation. In schools. At the workplace. The colonizer’s voice lives on through generations. His voice continues through the voices of the ones who aren’t colonized anymore. Seemingly small everyday comments – “Speak properly!”, “You sound dumb”, “Please speak decent English/Spanish/Portuguese”, “Our dialect is just bad English/Spanish/Portuguese” – dive deep into one’s soul until they do feel stupid. They do feel that the language they spoke at home is worthless.
“Nobody speaks that”.
On a different note, others may have told you that your language or dialect is useless because it has a small number of speakers. Or that it sounds way too similar to another language. “Why learn X when I can learn Y, a much more popular language that kinda sounds the same?”, “You guys just want to be different” or “That’s not even a language, that’s a dialect”. This applies to small countries, but also to regional tongues, smaller communities and indigenous languages.
To make matters worse, people don’t even need a political or an objective reason to dislike their own language. If their language happens to sound ugly to someone else and they decide to express that opinion, we’re left questioning whether the language we’ve come to use in our childhood, in our first date or crying on the shoulder of a friend makes us less sexy, less intelligent, less interesting.
In the end, there are countless reasons why we could dislike our own mother tongue. Here are eight thoughts on your mother tongue that might warm up your heart today.
1. You don’t have to be thankful because some other culture “gave” you your mother tongue.
“Your language/dialect only exists because my country decided to colonize yours / because my language existed first / because my country’s presence in your country improved it.” No, sir. Just no. Your mother tongue is the result of every single person who has ever participated in its history. That includes past, present and future. Your language developed that way just like it could have developed any other way, and one is not more positive than the other.
2. Your mother tongue is not the language of terrorists.
Need I say more? I can’t the pain that goes behind being accused of being evil, a terrorist, a fanatic or a threat because of the language you speak, without ever having caused harm to anybody. Please, don’t hide. It’s your right to exist. It’s your right to experience the world using your language without having to apologize for it. Dozens or even hundreds of terrorists don’t have the power to ruin your language. It’s a story of centuries coming together to allow you to express yourself in the most beautiful way.
3. Your mother tongue is not worthless because it uses gestures instead of words.
“Why don’t you just get a cochlear implant?”, “I’d kill myself if I had to speak like that” or “How do you even understand anything?”. Your sign language and particular dialect are just as valuable and worthy to the world as any other language, even if most of us still can’t quite understand the world as you experience it. Sign language can do incredible things that spoken language can’t, and it is your right to communicate in any way, shape or form that you feel comfortable with. Never let someone more ignorant than you take over.
4. Your mother tongue’s purpose isn’t to please others.
It’s horrible to have a foreigner who can’t put two sentences together in your mother tongue (of all people) tell you that your entire language sucks. It’s entitled, unjustified and ignorant. But languages don’t have to be beautiful to foreigners. They’re meant to be much more. They’re your history, your story, your tool. Your tool for pure, raw, genuine celebration. A means of mourning, loving, discussing. Of course we wish to believe that others see us as sexy, charming, “exotic” (whatever the hell that is) and pleasant. But any language rises in value and epicness way above that superficial aspect, which is highly subjective anyway.
5. Your mother tongue is not an “incorrect” version of another.
Languages develop, grow, change, move back and forward, absorb, borrow and lend. It’s nobody’s place to tell you that your dialect is incorrect because “it’s just a screwed up version of (insert supposedly better language, usually the one of an ex-colonizer or cultural giant)”. Others should never shame you for your dialect, accent or word choice. Wear them with pride!
6. Sometimes we learn a mother tongue later in life – and that’s okay.
Heritage learners often find themselves involved in identity conflicts, especially if they can’t speak one or two of their mother tongues well. If you grew up in Germany and your mother is French but your father is not, you might have grown up speaking only German and feel ashamed that your French is imperfect. You might also feel in-between. But there’s no shame in perfecting your skills as an adult. All of us do it, anyway! It’s a part of becoming more eloquent, more knowledgeable and taking on the spirit of a language. Heritage learners are a perfect example that being multiple is gorgeous.
7. Your mother tongue doesn’t automatically mean you’re available and ready for anything.
Speaking certain languages in this world filled with prejudice can be difficult. You might get unwanted advances, disgusting comments or offers to go to the nearest hotel. This is particularly true for women who speak Russian, Ukrainian, Thai, Brazilian Portuguese or Spanish, who are unfortunately seen as “easy” or “ready for anything” by some other cultures. I’ve witnessed this countless times with my own eyes. You’ve done nothing wrong and don’t have to apologize for your presence. You don’t owe anyone anything and don’t have to “represent” your country or its reputation by being “exotic”. You are you, with your way of being in the world.
8. Your mother tongue doesn’t define you, even if it is a part of your identity.
How many times have you seen people get disappointed when they hear you speak Korean and strike up a conversation, but then discover you’re not really into K-Pop? Or someone heard you speak Brazilian Portuguese, only to be shocked that you’re not really into football and love metal music instead? Or maybe you spoke German and someone automatically made jokes about sausages, Hitler and beer? Been there, done that! Languages don’t define our taste. They are one of our many beautiful facets. We can explore our inner diversity without having to obey stereotypes foreigners have about us.
One thing I love doing is asking people why they want to learn another language in particular. Why Mandarin Chinese, Cantonese, French, Norwegian, Turkish? I had never really sat down to question why I love asking other people that. Now, I think the reason I ask people why they want to learn a new language is because I want to understand something – anything – about my own.
Let’s celebrate International Mother Language Day with the thought that all languages are wonderful stories. The people who ever lived to speak or sign that language helped shape it through the centuries. The fact we can still speak it, write it and send/receive any kind of message with it is fascinating.
Your mother tongue is the result of a gigantic number of people who felt the urge to let themselves be heard. And that’s one of the purest of human feelings.
There’s no such thing as an ugly, useless, worthless or aggressive language. If you can say “Hello, how are you feeling today?” to someone else in that language and see a bright smile on their face, you’re witnessing beauty right there.