While Vermont is the whitest state in the nation, as many as thirty-four thousand of its residents speak a language other than English in their home. And as many as sixty different languages are spoken in some of our schools: French, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, Polish and Vietnamese, among them. Language is a ready source of diversity in our state and a rich tool for intercultural learning and human understanding.
International Mother Language Day is celebrated on February 21st. This day promotes linguistic diversity, multilingual education and the protection of endangered languages around the world.
Yet, as a bilingual and bicultural person, who has lived half my life in Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico and the other half in English-speaking Vermont, I only recently learned about this day. And, as a diversity consultant for many years, I’ve never seen this day promoted as part of other multicultural activities. This includes my own town of Brattleboro, where an informal survey of my colleagues, revealed that none had plans to celebrate the day in their schools, places of work, or with their families.
And yet, the United Nations has declared that “languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our heritage. The appreciation of our many linguistic and cultural traditions inspires world solidarity based on dialogue and deep understanding.”
International Mother Language Day commemorates the 1952 “language movement” in East Bengal, today’s Bangladesh, when thousands of students and activists demonstrated against the government’s imposition of Urdu as the only language in a region where 70 million people spoke the Bangla or Bengali language. Between nineteen-hundred and nineteen-thirty, the United States also attempted to eliminate the use of Spanish in Puerto Rico by requiring all schools to teach in English only , even though by law, both Spanish and English were the official languages of the newly acquired Island. Today, less than one quarter of the seven thousand languages in the world are used in education and cyber space.
Language provides a unique entry into other world views, helping us bridge differences as well as understand the commonalities among people.
It can also be used as a weapon to dominate others and destroy their heritage and identity. I hope we will choose to learn about, support and celebrate the diversity of languages in the world - not as a barrier to our state’s development – but as an important resource in the struggle for global justice and peace.