By Aidan O’Sullivan

With International Mother Language Day having passed us on the 21st of February of this year, perhaps it is time to take a closer look at the date and, in particular, its relevance to Ireland, the Irish language and Irish culture.

International Mother Language Day was first proclaimed by UNESCO in 1999 and later adopted by the UN General Assembly. It was based on the fight for recognition of the Bengali language in what was then East Pakistan and is now recognised as the nation of Bangladesh. After the partition of India occurred the Pakistani state was formed, which proclaimed Urdu as the official language of both West and East Pakistan. The majority Bengali-speaking population of East Pakistan however, protested, arguing for dual national languages. The state of Pakistan at the time, instead of accommodating this, forbade public rallies and gatherings, with police shooting and killing several protesters on the 21st of February 1952 who had refused to obey this message. This event would lay the roots for Bangladeshi independence but also the origin of International Mother Language Day which holds the same date.

The fight for the preservation and recognition of national languages is now commemorated with International Mother Language Day, which looks to go beyond its Bangladeshi origin to champion worldwide multilingualism and, in particular, the importance of native languages to cultural diversity. According to the United Nations, 45% of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken around the world are endangered. Irish Gaelic or Gaeilge is one of these languages that has been given an endangered status. Today, due to the long histories of colonialism and imperialism as well as the effects of globalisation, languages such as English and French have been made through both economic necessity and historically violent subjugation, dominant languages in former colonies. This includes but is not limited to Ireland, Ghana, Nigeria, as well as many more.

Language, is not just a means of communication, but a medium for culture. It carries our cultural values and customs, whether it be in oral or in written form, literature, film or audio. More than an economic mediator in day-to-day life, language reaffirms cultural identities. Language also acts as a method of preservation and transmission of our cultural values and history on an intergenerational level. International Mother Language Day looks to promote language preservation and cultural diversity for these reasons.

This is particularly relevant for Irish culture, where, after centuries of Anglo-Norman and British rule, Gaeilge has diminished to a language barely spoken by the vast majority of people who call themselves Irish. While the 2022 census recorded nearly 40% of people in the country having claimed to be able to speak Irish, only 10% claimed to be able to speak it well. Furthermore, under 3% of speakers actually use it in their daily lives.

Why has the Irish language become so destitute? In part, this can be explained, of course, by Ireland’s long history of colonialism as a former English colony. Norman invasions and British rule saw English become the dominant language of the political elite, and for years of this country’s history, there was a serious lack of education in the subject. However, it’s been over 100 years since Irish independence, and despite the nearly two-decade-long education most Irish citizens spend being taught their native language, there is a remarkable lack of fluency among Irish citizens in their native language.

International Mother Language Day highlights the importance of preserving the Irish language and culture but also the dire need for change as the Irish system continues to produce such low numbers of fluent Irish speakers. The event is more than just a day of celebration but also a call to action, to change our systems in order to preserve our culture and history through our native tongue.