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International Mother Language Day and You

21 February 2013

Message from Krista Pikkat, UNESCO Representative a.i.

If you are reading this, you are one of 280 million people who use Russian as a first or second language. Nonetheless, International Mother Language Day, celebrated annually on February 21, calls us to remember the importance of all languages.

Breathing is natural, easily taken for granted.  In the same way, people often overlook the importance of their mother language, or mother tongue, broadly defined as the first language acquired in childhood.  This is particularly true when people mistakenly judge a well known language like English, Mandarin Chinese, or Thai as being superior to languages spoken by fewer people.

The mother tongue is the foundation of cognitive development. Through it we develop a sense of self and begin to explore the world. Children who are compelled to learn in a language that is neither their mother tongue nor a language they understand  are educationally disadvantaged; they are more likely to repeat grades and less likely to go on to higher education.  Indeed, the World Bank has found that half of the world’s out-of-school children speak minority languages.[1]

A massive body of evidence—over 1500 published studies—has proven that well-designed mother tongue based education  dramatically improves the academic success of such children.  Students who develop strong basic academic skills in their mother language and then systematically acquire the national language do much better in school than children who are forced to study in languages they do not speak. 

Some claim that smaller languages that do not have alphabets cannot be used for education.  Nonetheless, in the past century over one thousand languages have developed alphabets for the first time.  Every year, books are being written in languages that never had books before.

Uzbekistan has a history of ancient civilization, at the crossroads of the Great Silk Road from North to South and East to West. Over centuries, the country has been inhabited by various ethnic groups and religions, which forged inter-ethnic and intercultural tolerance, peace and harmony. Today, Uzbekistan is a home for over 140 nationals and ethnic minorities. TV programs are broadcast in most popular eight languages in the country: Uzbek, Karakalpak, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Russian, Tajik, Tatar and Uyghur. In addition, radio programs and newspapers are  released in the Crimean Tatar, Korean, Turkmen, Ukrainian, and Turkish languages. In recognition of the importance of education in mother language, basic education in Uzbekistan is provided in 7 languages with textbooks and instructional learning materials prepared in mother tongue of the major ethnic groups of the country.  It’s important to cherish and preserve this linguistic diversity.

International Mother Language Day is a day proclaimed by UNESCO in 1999 and observed every year since to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.  Achieving positive outcomes requires the development of language policies that enable each linguistic community to use its mother language, as widely and as often as possible, including in educational, administrative, and legal contexts.  Only if such multilingualism is fully accepted as an invaluable asset in the development process can all languages find their place in our rapidly globalizing world.

In declaring  “Books for Mother Tongue Education” to be theme for this year’s  International Mother Language Day,  Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, states,  “In some countries, the dearth of books and textbooks in local languages hampers development and social inclusion and represents a violation of the right to freedom of expression. Digital tools can help to fill this gap, but they are not enough. We must do more to distribute materials and books as widely and fairly as possible, so that all people – children above all – can read in the language of their choice, including in their mother tongue. This can also boost progress towards the Education for All goals by 2015.”


[1] World Bank. 2005. “Education Notes”. June. http://siteresources.worldbank.org/EDUCATION/Resources/Education-Notes/EdNotes_Lang_of_Instruct.pdf (Accessed 12 February 2013).

Message from Ms Irina Bokova, Director-General of UNESCO, on the occasion of International Mother Language Day, 21 February 2013