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Monday, 21 February 2005
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation Days
Topic: Special Days
Today is International Mother Language Day and it has been observed every year since February 2000 in all UNESCO Member States. `What on earth is that all about?' I hear you say. Well, it recognises the need to improve understanding and communication among peoples and also stresses the importance of safeguarding the linguistic and cultural heritage of all of humanity and to promote multilingualism.

I talked about Language in one of my earlier posts: The Language of the Future in which I wondered what was happening to the World's languages, how many were about to die out and what would be the prevalent language in 2100. Sadly, there is now a serious threat to linguistic diversity due to global communication and the tendency to use a single language. Visit the UNESCO Red Book of Endangered Languages website to find out just how many languages are threatened with extinction. You will be amazed.

International Mother Language Day is also about teaching young children - who have a remarkable ability to acquire language skills at an extremely early age - to communicate in at least two languages. At one time, the teaching of French in some British primary schools was discontinued. Now I am pleased to see that my grandchildren are learning some French words at their primary school. However, to teach children a second language, they really do need to be totally immersed in that language for at least one day a week. To do this successfully, ALL lessons on that day need to be conducted in the chosen language and all other activities, in the playground, on the sports field or even in the school canteen, should also be conducted in the chosen language. Hopefully, a future goal for our educational system? (I believe this language immersion already happens in numerous schools around the world).

Of course, many children learn to speak one language at home and another one in the community at large. This means that in all multi-ethnic communities, children should by right receive tuition in their mother language as well as in their adopted language if they are to be truly bilingual. Often young children in particular will learn better in their mother tongue instead of struggling, falling behind, being labelled "educationally challenged", sent to remedial classes and going through life disadvantaged. Too often in the past children have been actively encouraged to forget their mother tongue.

English people in particular seem to have very poor language skills. We travel to Europe and to other continents and expect every one else to speak English - and mostly everyone does. I often see reporters on television interviewing `the person on the street' in some other country and I am greatly impressed by their command of English. If a German, Spanish or Greek camera crew tried to interview us "Brits" in their respective languages they would probably stand all day on our local `High Street' and be extremely lucky to find one person, other than a foreign tourist, able to string together enough words to form a sentence. We do have our linguists, of course, but they seem to be a rare breed compared with our European cousins. Although I must say, that to his great credit, our Prime Minister, Tony Blair, can converse extremely well in French.

Many years ago, my late sister, Pauline, decided to learn some Arabic before going on holiday to Lebanon and the Holy Land. In Beirut, she noticed a marked difference in the attitude of shop keepers in particular who were impressed by her few words in their language and who seemed to greatly appreciate her courtesy in making the attempt. Why don't you enrol in a language class this year? Learning another language is rewarding and will greatly enrich your appreciation of another country or culture particularly if you plan to visit that country on your holidays.

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