Celebrating 20 years of International Mother Language Day

Friday 21st February is International Mother Language Day.

It was established by Unesco in 1999 to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism, and first celebrated in February 2000. The date was chosen to memorialise the day in 1952 when police in East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) opened fire, killing and wounding protestors seeking to have Bangla recognised as a national language. In 2008, this day began the International Year of Languages, which highlighted the increasing global threat to linguistic diversity, and the growing numbers of endangered languages. The International Year of Indigenous Languages (IYIL) was celebrated in 2019, and the United Nations has declared 2022-2032 an International Decade of Indigenous Languages “inviting indigenous peoples — as custodians — to initiate ideas for preserving this endangered facet of their cultural and social life”.

Just over 25 years ago, the Foundation for Endangered Languages (FEL) began life in an email sent to interested parties by Nicholas Ostler on 27th November 1994. As recorded in the first FEL Newsletter (originally entitled Iatiku and now Ogmios), the inaugural meeting was held at the Department of Trade and Industry (where Nick worked) on 27th January 1995, and attended by the late R.H. (Bobby) Robins (SOAS), Allan Wynne Jones (European Bureau of Lesser Used Languages), Andrew Woodfield (Bristol), Greville (Grev) Corbett (Surrey), Dick Hayward (SOAS) and Roger Blench. A second meeting was held on 20th April 1995 at Bristol University involving Ostler, Robins, Wynne Jones, Woodfield and Hayward, plus Chris Moseley (BBC) and Howard Webkamigad (Algoma University College). The meeting resolved to establish a fund-raising charity, and later in the year Ostler, Moseley and Woodfield formally constituted FEL as a company in the UK limited by guarantee, and arranged for its recognition as a registered charity. By April 1996 (see Iatiku issue 2) a management committee had been set up and mechanisms created for supporters to become members and donate to the Foundation.

FEL’s original goals are set out in its Manifesto and its main activities have been holding annual conferences, publishing the conference proceedings, distributing a newsletter to members, and providing small grants to individuals and groups. Over the years, approximately US$145,000 has been provided to finance a wide-range of small-scale grassroots projects across the world, including documenting and describing threatened languages around the world (for a partial listing see our website).

Documentation of endangered genres of Kĩsêdjê oral literature, Brazil (grantee: Rafael Bezerra Nonato)

In recent years, projects that focus on the revitalisation of an endangered language and/or support the use of an endangered language in its community have been given priority. These have included production of dictionaries, books for children, learning materials, and bringing community members together for workshops.

Huasteca Potosina Nahuatl: A book-compilation of local stories and legends (grantee: Elwira Sobkowiak)

Over the past 25 years the endangered languages landscape has changed considerably and there has been an enormous development of interest in the topic, expansion of academic and non-academic activity (including engagement by Unesco and the UN, such as through International Mother Language Day), publications, and funding, including the DoBeS programme of the Volkswagen Foundation (funded from 2000 to 2013, though its archive continues), ELDP of the Arcadia Fund (and its archive at ELAR), and the Documenting Endangered Languages (DEL) initiative of the US National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Smaller grants are available from the Endangered Language Fund (ELF) which was established in 1996, the same year as FEL, and a few other sources.

We join Unesco and the rest of the world in celebrating linguistic diversity and multilingualism on this day, and throughout the year. You can help us to continue our work by becoming a member of FEL and/or donating to our fund for small grants (go to section (5) of this form and add payment details) to support the use of mother tongues in all aspects of people’s lives.