21 February 2022

International Mother Language Day, celebrated each year on 21 February, is an opportunity to highlight the instrumental role of the languages we inherited in early childhood, whether we call them mother tongues or mother languages, first languages or main languages. They are, for each of us, the bedrock of all our learning and knowledge. This is why education in mother languages is so important: we cannot absorb what we cannot understand. Yet it is estimated that 40 per cent of the world’s people still have no access to education in a language that they speak or understand, a condition that has negative multiplier effects on the attainment of many of the Sustainable Development Goals.

Mother languages also serve as a foundational frame of reference that enables the acquisition of additional languages. This is why we at the United Nations place so much emphasis on the importance of our language staff having an excellent command of their mother tongue—the language into which they translate or interpret, with all the required nuances and subtleties. While a strong knowledge of the mother tongue facilitates the learning of other languages, those other languages also inform us, conversely, about our own mother languages, their histories, their similarities with and differences from the languages we are learning, and they are evolving.

This year's observance of International Mother Language Day also occurs a few weeks after the launch of the International Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022–2032) and provides a further opportunity to highlight the extent to which languages and cultures are intertwined and interdependent. Cultures find expression through languages, and they feed languages, nourishing and enriching them. If there is no language in which to receive, transmit or express a culture, there is no culture. At a time when the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) estimates that almost half of the 7,000 identified languages in the world are endangered, we risk a loss of linguistic diversity on a scale at least equivalent to the loss of biodiversity, with consequences that remain to be seen. The vulnerability of languages—which are also a key element of identity—generates, for instance, tensions between linguistic minorities and dominant groups. When a language disappears, it is not only a whole system of thought, a vision of the world and a frame of reference that are wiped out, but also all the ancestral knowledge and beliefs conveyed by that language—and it is irretrievable. An entire heritage, a line of descent, is broken, and descendants are deprived of the ties that bind them to their ancestors, their history and their beliefs.

An interpreter at work during the high-level virtual event on Financing for Development in the Era of COVID-19 and Beyond. ©UN Photo/Evan Schneider

The 21 February observance also affords us an opportunity to celebrate, more generally, language diversity and multilingualism, and their invaluable—but too often underestimated—contribution to peace in the world, harmony among peoples and mutual understanding, which form the very foundation of the United Nations.

While monolingualism can divide different linguistic groups and put up walls between them, multilingualism, in contrast, helps to build bridges between speakers and create an auspicious environment for exchange, communication and fluid dialogue; in other words, multilingualism can move us from incomprehension to comprehension, from the unknown to the known and from doubt to trust. What is true for individuals is also true for the United Nations: in order to understand and be understood by the peoples it has a responsibility to serve, the Organization also has a duty to use multiple languages and to nurture, internally, the cultural sensitivities necessary to ensure respect for all stakeholders.

With this in mind, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has made multilingualism—which he himself embodies—a priority of his term of office. For him, it is about making sure that the Organization is more representative of the diversity of the world in which it operates, building on the tenet that a more representative organization—for example, one that maintains gender balance among its staff—is also more democratic and legitimate, and more effective. In the context of languages, a more diverse organization that is better placed to ensure that linguistic resources match linguistic needs will also be better equipped, for example, to interact with Member States or civil society, maintain good relations with local communities on the ground, communicate messages on the prevention of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and counter COVID-19 disinformation, engage with victims whose basic rights have been violated, or gather and analyse information that enables peace operations to anticipate and guard against threats.

In classrooms or online, every learner should be able to study in their mother tongue from the earliest years of schooling to avoid knowledge gaps. ©UNESCO

The United Nations has significant assets at its disposal to achieve this. First, it has a favourable legal framework. Multilingualism is indeed at the core of the United Nations mission: its Charter establishes non-discrimination on the basis of language as one of its highest principles and sanctions the equality of the Organization’s official languages. Additionally, the concept of multilingualism being the norm in any multilateral organization with a universal vocation has been repeatedly recalled by the General Assembly since the adoption of its second resolution on 1 February 1946. Since the mid-1990s, Member States have also taken steps to include a specific item on multilingualism in the Assembly’s agenda, and it has adopted resolutions on multilingualism every two years since then. Lastly, over the past decade, we have observed a semantic shift: multilingualism, in addition to being recognized as a founding principle of the United Nations, has gradually acquired the status of a “core value”, an enabler of multilateral diplomacy that helps improve the Organization’s effectiveness, results and transparency.

Furthermore, the United Nations has an additional advantage in promoting linguistic diversity: long-standing investment in technologies that have enabled considerable advances in document processing and the management of emergency situations, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a sudden shift from in-person to virtual meetings.

The United Nations has another huge asset that is still underutilized: its staff, the vast majority of whom are multilingual and multicultural. As the United Nations Coordinator for Multilingualism, I seek to raise awareness among all stakeholders of the need to adopt staff management practices that take account of language considerations. The ultimate goal is to better utilize, harness and strengthen, at the strategic level, the Organization’s internal language resources, which are the keystone of a truly multilingual operation, allowing for the equal participation of all staff in our collective endeavours. With its multilingual, adaptable and creative workforce taking full advantage of mother languages, the United Nations will be better placed to tackle the constantly evolving challenges to international peace and security, sustainable development and human rights.

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