I was asked by one of my Bangladeshi friends to write a piece about the importance of mother language to appear in a Bangla newspaper the weekend before the celebration of Mother Language Day. This was originally a Bangladeshi initiative that was adopted globally by UNICEF in 1999. The theme for 2023 is education and so Milton Rahman asked me if I would contribute a short article based on my experience of working in the field of producing materials for language teaching for the last two decades, including working for a time in Bangladesh with the BBC Media Action in 2009. Here’s the front cover and a link to the English translated version of the Bengali. And below is what I originally wrote so it’s interesting to see how meaning shifts a little when double-translated.
International Mother Language Day 21 February 2023
It’s a little ironic that I should be asked to write a piece for International Mother Language Day as I spent the last twenty-five years of my professional career making videos and other learning materials for teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language. However this work did give me some understanding of how language is acquired and the important role that education has to play. For the majority of people multilingualism will be a necessity or at the very least a benefit – ranging from remote peoples dealing with aid agencies or having the power to withstand economic exploitation, through manufacturers and traders in developing countries dealing on level terms with more powerful clients through to wealthier middle classes who travel for holidays and wish to truly engage with the culture of the countries they are visiting.
The theme for 2023 focuses on the need to transform education to embrace multilingualism. This is something I wholeheartedly endorse. Languages both spoken and written are the cornerstone of how character develops, of how we become who we are. So our mother language helps to form us, creates our personality, develops our abilities.
It is crucial therefore that educational systems respect mother languages and are not subjugated to the dominance of the language preferred by the educators. In my researches for several projects I have visited schools and colleges to observe language teaching in practice so that I can prepare appropriate scripts and materials. I have to confess that on almost all of these occasions whether in Bangladesh, China, France, Italy, Japan, Pakistan and Spain I have had to observe and understand the process through the filter of an interpreter. Now that’s fine for me as an adult able to formulate precise questions to try to obtain the essence of what I was observing and I was served by excellent interpreters on all occasions. But for children starting on their education pathway it is vital that they receive education of high quality in their mother tongue. It is difficult enough to take on the novel experiences of social groupings, being spoken to by people who are not familiar and trying to absorb complex information and techniques. Add to this the need to process it all through a second, often unfamiliar language, and it’s clear why so many children fail to achieve their potential.
So how do we address this? Educating the educators is the first step. We need to ensure that teachers are appointed who have a good working command of the mother languages they will encounter. The second is to avoid any hint of stigma attached to not being fluent in the dominant language. If students feel they are alienated from the mainstream, they will find it very difficult to make good progress. One lesson my observations taught me was that people learn in different ways and at different paces. So it’s important to use learning materials that are varied in nature – visuals, theatre, music, games and dance can all contribute to successful learning.
I was fortunate to work in Bangladesh in 2009 with BBC Media Action as a development producer for a series of television programmes as part of the BBC Janala project. We experimented with many forms of production to convey language learning opportunities and what became very clear was that more information was retained and more facility developed when students were having fun. It’s hard to have fun when your mother language is denied you. So let’s strive for a wider spread of respect for and education in mother language and make learning any language more fun.