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February 28, 2018

Students Promote Multilingualism in International Mother Language Day Festivities

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Cornell students celebrated International Mother Language Day — an initiative meant to promote native languages when they are threatened — by eating Bengali food and taking photos that embraced multilingualism in Willard Straight Hall on Tuesday.

Usually observed on Feb 21, the International Mother Language Day is an U.N. initiative originally adopted by Bangladesh to celebrate the country’s Language Movement, which helped preserve the native Bangla language despite government opposition to it.

The Bengali Student Association, Puerto Rican Student Association and other student organizations ran a table and a photo booth in Willard Straight Hall to “promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity, and the freedom to speak our mother tongues,” according to the event’s Facebook page.

Participants celebrated the day by writing about what they loved both in their mother language and in English and enjoying Bengali food prepared by the event organizers.

BSA president Ming Khan ’18 explained that while the day originated in Bangladesh, it has an universal importance that transcends national boundaries.

“In 1952, there was a lot of resistance to speaking our own language in Bangladesh … Bengali fought for the right to speak their own language,” Khan said. “[But now,] there are so many languages spoken throughout the world, many of them are at the danger of dying out … So we need to protect and preserve all the languages.”

Piragash Swargaloganathan ’19, a student from Sri Lanka familiar with International Mother Language Day, said the Day also has relevance for his country’s history.

“In Sri Lanka, there was an ethnic war because of the attempt to impose the majority language in the country on the minority,” he said. “The fact of putting (the celebration) on is a huge deal, because I think more and more languages are disappearing, especially in South Asia,” Swargaloganathan said.

Swargaloganathan lamented that many languages are “losing the public space,” as states show support for “main” languages like English and Mandarin.

“They sort of displace small languages that are spoken in the world,” he said.

Nathanael Cheng ’20, involved in Cornell Taiwanese American Society, echoed Swargaloganathan’s worries and raised concerns about the possibility that Taiwanese might disappear “in 100 or 200 years.”

“It was interesting,” Cheng commented. “I never learned about the right to fight to speak your own language.”

Khan noted that languages deserve recognition for the powerful sway it holds over societies.

“Languages are a very powerful tool,” she said. “It can unify and it can divide.”