Today, February 21, marks International Mother Language Day. First proclaimed by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) in 2000, it is celebrated each year “to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.”
Mother languages or mother tongues are the languages we first learn at home in childhood and continue to understand into adulthood. They strongly tie us to our culture and sense of identity.
In Canada, English and French are still the predominant mother tongues spoken (57% and 21% of Canadians, respectively). However, over 20% of Canadians speak a language other than these at home. According to Statistics Canada, “[in] 2011, 80% of the population who reported speaking an immigrant language (i.e., a language other than English, French or an Aboriginal language) most often at home lived in one of Canada’s six largest census metropolitan areas.” (Statistics Canada)
Many cities in Canada have recognized the need to provide official services for residents whose mother tongue is neither English nor French. It is typical to see large city websites offer information in many languages. In Toronto, the city’s 311 help number provides services in more than 180 different languages.
Examples of the importance of creating accessible municipal services in other languages can be found in cities around the globe:
The Toronto Police Service (TPS) actively recruits in the city’s diverse communities. The recruit class of 2009 is a great example, emphasizing the importance of language skills, cultural competencies and diversity of perspectives. A total of 60% spoke a language other than English, with 22% speaking two languages or more, including American Sign Language, Arabic, Cantonese, Farsi, French, Hindi, Italian, Korean, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Tagalog, Tamil, to name just a few. For the TPS, this active recruitment is an important way to stay relevant and provide inclusive service in a very diverse city.
Recognizing the importance of immigrant entrepreneurs to the economic vitality of its region, the City of Vienna created a stream within its business incubation agency to meet the unique needs of immigrant entrepreneurs. Workshops are offered where speakers address participants in both German and another language (English, Polish, Turkish, Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian). While the workshops are held in German, technical terms are explained in the mother tongue language. Participants are able to ask questions in either language and trainers respond in the preferred language.
People in Your Neighbhourhood (PIYN), a project in Auckland, New Zealand, is an innovative music collaboration highlighting the city’s increasingly creative and multi-ethnic diversity while working with artists from the UK. A free downloadable album was recorded that brought together 17 local musicians with UK-based Urban Soul Orchestra in an eclectic collaborative mix of soulful beats and rhythms. The self-titled album features New Zealand-born Chinese writer Renee Liang, Korean rapper Joshua Jang, Brother J singing in Maori and English, GuZheng player Xiyao Chen, Spanish Flamenco singer Maite Elguetta Clavelle, and Brazilian singer songwriter Mani Fegundes. The bulk of the tracks include both English and another language.
Rather than being a barrier, opportunity to access services in—and the freedom to speak—our mother languages contributes to social cohesion and inclusion. We encourage you to celebrate International Mother Language Day in your community!