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International Mother Language Day UNESCO Meeting 2009 Part 1

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Events are about to start for the International Mother Language Day, at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The first item of the day will be an opening panel with the Director-General of UNESCO, the chair of their executive board, the permanent representative of Bangladesh, and Adama Samassekou of the African Academy of Languages.

The event is taking place in a room that screams 1960s architectural design. Nice fabric chairs, a graceful curve and a slopig ceiling - but no power outlets! I guess people didn't bring laptops to meetings 40 years ago. However, that means that my opportunities to blog will be limited, since I will have to stretch 2 hours of battery life over an all-day event.

The D-G is speaking: We are finishing the International Mother Language Year, reminding us of the importance of languages for all. Bangladesh proposed the annual Day (IMLD), and it has been celebrated every year since 1999. Role of languages in sustainable development and cultural diversity has been recognized in an international convention with a long name. Recognition of importance of multilingualism and universal access to cyberspace [three cheers for multilingualism in cyberspace!] - languages are integration tools in economic and cultural terms.

The aim of the year, from an institutional perspective, was to raise awareness of language issues at a policy level, in countries around the world. To this aim, events have been held in locations around the world, including Joburg, Dar, and Bamako. A growing and increasingly diverse number of players from governments and civil society are coming to recognize that languages are at the heart of our social, economic, and cultural life. We need to continue to encourage governments to include languages within their development plans.

At the same time, we have to recognize that many languages are increasingly at threat of extinction. When a language dies, important parts of our cultural heritage are lost. The Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, to be released later today, addresses these issues.

He encourages the international community to follow up the awareness-raising of this year with specific and lasting actions, including encouraging universal access to high quality education in their own languages.

Now the ambassador from Bangladesh: The IMLD was proposed by Bangladesh in memory of people who were killed in 1952 for protesting the imposition of Urdu and the suppression of Bangla. This was tied to the political carving up of south Asia at that time, by which Bangladesh was part of Pakistan, with thousands of kilometers of India in between. That distance meant, of course, that the people of "East Pakistan", the Bangla people, spoke a completely different language than that of the national capital in present-day Pakistan. There was a protest, and police fired on the protesters, killing many people over the course of two days. It took a few years more conflict, but finally Bangla was recognized as an official language. The ambassador closes with the photos of the men who died for the cause of their languages.

Next is Adama Samassekou. I've had the privilege of spending time with Adama at meetings of the African Network for Localization. He is the former minister of education for Mali, and has now taken on a leadership role for language, education, and technology issues for the entire continent. He starts by talking about the time schedule for the International Year of Languages, and concedes that it was a little rushed between conception and implementation. After this year, and previous events during the past decade, the importance of languages has started to have an increased profile in policy circles. He will mention three things:
1) Africa: 1/3 of all languages are spoken there, but it is also the continent where mother tongues are least recognized. Especially as a tool for which people have access to basic social services and interactions with the state. How can we move forward when we know that we cannot provide education, healthcare, and nutrition in the 85% of cases where people do not have any access to such services in their mother tongues? Teaching and services must be made available in mother tongues, and we must make sure that mother tongues have full and equal official status alongside the languages imposed by the colonial powers. The IMLD has been an opportunity for Africa to make political commitments to promote and enhance African languages, and to speed up the language action plan for Africa. The African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) is undertaking some important steps in this regard (which he mentions too quickly for me to type). 12 African languages have been identified for which commissions will be established - I'll be curious to see how much overlap there is between those languages and the languages that the Kamusi Project will be bringing into PALDO.
2) The Maaya Network for Cultural Diversity, which will be featured in the third session.
3) I missed the transition to point three, sorry. Now he's wrapping up with hopes that we carry the spirit of the year into Regional Charters for each continent, that will address specific language issues around the world.",

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