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Americas: International Mother Language Day

This post is part of our special coverage Languages and the Internet.

UNESCO invites the world to celebrate the International Mother Language Day annually on February 21 to encourage all communities to “promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.” According to Koïchiro Matsuura, former UNESCO Director-General:

…Languages constitute an irreducible expression of human creativity in all its diversity. Tools of communication, perception and reflection, they also shape the way we view the world and provide a link between past, present and future. They bear within them the traces of their encounters, the diverse sources from which they have borrowed, each according to its own particular history.”

Celebration in front of the International Mother Language Day Monument in Ashfield, Sidney (Australia). Photo by Anisur Rahman and used under Wikimedia Commons

Celebration in front of the International Mother Language Day Monument in Ashfield, Sidney (Australia). Photo by Anisur Rahman and used under Wikimedia Commons

In recent times when many of the world languages are in risk of extinction, this day reminds many of the importance of mother tongues through the discussion about the need to maintain global cultural diversity as long as possible. Part of these efforts, according to Matsuura, include a primary school in Kosovo that has launched a series of exchanges with students from “different schools and nations”; celebrations with poems, indigenous songs, stories, plays, and a ceremony organized in the Philippines titled, “In the Galaxy of Languages, Every Word is a Star.” This celebration has also been important in Bangladesh, where they have been celebrating the diversity of languages since 1952.

David Galeano Oliveira, in his blog Café Historia [es] supports this idea:

Cada lengua refleja una visión única del mundo y una cultura compleja que refleja la forma en la que una comunidad ha resuelto sus problemas en su relación con el mundo, y en la que ha formulado su pensamiento, su sistema filosófico y el entendimiento del mundo que le rodea. Por eso, con la muerte y desaparición de una lengua, se pierde para siempre una parte insustituible de nuestro conocimiento del pensamiento y de la visión del mundo.

Each language reflects a unique vision of the globe and a complex culture that shows the way in which a community solves its problems around their own relationship of the world. It also shows how these peoples have made up their thoughts, their philosophical system and the understanding of their surroundings. This is why, with the death of a language, also comes the loss of an irreplaceable part of our own knowledge and our vision of the world.

The Ongoing Discussion About What is “Good” Spanish

“We ended up losing…we ended up winning…they took the gold and left us the gold…they took everything and left us everything…they left us the words”

Pablo Neruda

Most Spanish speakers are located in Latin America; of all countries with a majority of Spanish speakers, only Spain and Equatorial Guinea are outside the Americas. For many in the region, Spanish is considered to be their mother tongue based on the long history with Spain. However, the Spanish language differs from country to country, which brings up discussions and debates about origins, forms and “styles”. In the blog Sacando la Lengua [es], I tried to underline the fact that these difference are today a futile matter of discussion:

Hace mucho que nos hemos dado cuenta de que el idioma más que algo abstracto pareciera más bien tomar la forma de un animal salvaje; y como tal, cambia, evoluciona y crece. ¿Se podrá dominar a este animal? Muy buena suerte a los que lo intenten. Una vez preso, cambiará de forma. Observar su belleza traerá seguramente muchos menos cotilleos bizantinos que determinar cuál es la exacta, o cuál es la “correcta” forma de hablar la lengua de Lorca, de las versiones y diversiones de Paz, de la hilarante modestia de Borges y de tantos otros que lo hablan y lo transforman hoy. El español que habla esta inmensa cantidad de gente no es, en efecto, el mismo.

It’s been long since we realized that the language, more than something completely abstract, actually seems to take the shape of a savage animal, and as such, it changes, grows and evolves. Is it possible to tame this beast? Good luck to those who dare to try! Once in the cage, it’ll change its features. Just observing its beauty will be surely the best way to avoid wasting time splitting hairs by pointing out which is the best and most accurate way to speak the language of (Federico García) Lorca, the same one that (Octavio) Paz used in his versions and diversions and in which (Jorge Luis) Borges showed his clever modesty. It is the same language so many people use and change today. The Spanish that this large amount of people speak is not the same.

This same idea is backed up by Viviana Mejenes-Knorr, who wrote as guest editor on the blog Lexiophiles [es]:

Como cualquier otra lengua ampliamente hablada, el español no es uniforme; en cada país hispanohablante y en cada una de sus regiones, se le añaden sazones gramaticales que crean una colorida gama sociolingüística con rasgos léxicos únicos, además de agregarle diversidad a la pronunciación.

Like any widely-spoken language, Spanish is not uniform. In every Spanish speaking country and its regions, new grammatical flavours are added, and this creates a colourful socio linguistic range with unique lexical features and new diversities in pronunciation.

Other phenomena explored in the blogosphere is the Spanish used in United States. From Argentina, Pedro Ylarri writes in his Blog del Medio [es] a review of a new encyclopedia of Spanish in USA, which he considers a turning point in the study of this language inside the country. Pedro underlines the study of the influence of youth and its role in this evolution through technology and also gives his thoughts around the expansion of the language through culture, literature and media:

Junto a los medios de comunicación, la producción cultural plasma el empuje del español en todos sus ámbitos: revistas literarias, cuentos, poesía, teatro, música…, toda manifestación artística es rastreada históricamente hasta nuestros días, según distintas nacionalidades y corrientes.

Ante el mundo de la novela, por ejemplo, Mercedes Cortazar y Eduardo Lago nos presentan una perspectiva complementaria, colocándonos respectivamente ante la pista de las posibilidades de la narrativa escrita en español en Estados Unidos, así como ante la existencia de multitud de escritores hispanos que se expresan en inglés.

With the mainstream media, the cultural production captures the force of the Spanish in all its spheres: literary magazines, short stories, poetry, theatre, and music… All artistic expressions are tracked historically to our days, according to the different nationalities and movements.

In the literary world, for example, Mercedes Cortazar y Eduardo Lago (among other Hispanic writers expressing themselves in English) present a complementary perspective and they give us the clue on the possibilities of Spanish narrative in the States.

Posting now from the Philippines, Manolo Pérez, a blogger from Spain, observes with fascination the presence of his language in what he considered a far away land:

Realmente el español nunca se ha ido de Filipinas, se habla poco pero permanece en las lenguas locales y, sobre todo, en la Historia y en los archivos de este país, en su literatura, etc. Más que de la vuelta del español hay que hablar de la vuelta de la enseñanza del español.

Este sigue siendo un país de sorpresas y para un español más.

The Spanish language never left the Philippines. It’s not widely spoken, but it still seen in local languages and, most of all, in the history of the country and its literature. More than the return of the Spanish, we should discuss more the return of this language in education.

This is a country full of surprises, even more for a Spaniard.

The Conquest of the Spanish Language and its “Adoption” in the New World

For others in Latin America, one's mother tongue is relative. A brief historical review is summarized in Salon Hogar [es] about this spread of the Spanish language in a region where many languages had already been present. The diversity of languages in America was -and still is- immense. Some authors point out that this continent is the most fragmented, from the linguistic point of view, with more than a hundred families of languages, inside which there are also tens or even hundreds of dialects and languages. Nonetheless, some of the most important languages coming from indigenous communities are still alive, given the number of speakers or its influence in the Spanish. Languages like Nahuatl, Taino, Maya, Quechua, Aymara, Guarani and Mapuche are some of the most important examples.

When Christopher Columbus arrived to America in 1492, the Spanish language was already consolidated in Iberian Peninsula and it started a new process in the New World with the crossbreeding and the influence of the Catholic Church. The mixture was very complex, given the diversity, not only of the indigenous communities, but also that of the Spanish that settled in the land.

Many groups are promoting the preservation of their native languages, for example the blog Information Mapuche Chile [es]; in which it is underlined the importance of maintaining of indigenous languages:

La oportunidad de utilizar y transmitir el pensamiento y tradiciones en sus lenguas originarias representa no sólo un derecho cultural, sino que una herramienta esencial para asegurar el conocimiento de los derechos humanos. Según datos de la UNESCO, el 90% de todas las lenguas del mundo desaparecerían en los próximos 100 años.

The opportunity to use and transmit thoughts and traditions in its original languages represents not only a cultural right, but also an essential tool to ensure the access and acquaintance of Human Rights. According to UNESCO, 90% of all languages in the world would disappear in the next 100 years.

In the blog Espacio Verde [es], a Mexican community working for environmental development, a video is shared in which is seen the linguistic richness of the country.

Also, communities like Jaqi-Aru, a group of multilingual bloggers in El Alto, Bolivia , are engaged to the promotion of Aymara language in Internet. This group is devoted, thus, to protect the evolution of their own language. Through translation projects and blogging in their native tongue, Jaqi-Aru looks to contribute with the enrichment of the Aymara language in cyberspace.

In the end, UNESCO's celebration aims to promote the value of each language resulting in the intercultural exchanges. As language represents a cultural door to a new way of thinking and an interpretation of the world. Its main objective is to respect and promote the conservation of such expressions and give them a space in a world that, now more than ever, needs to exchange views, thoughts and grow in its intercultural relations.

This post is part of our special coverage Languages and the Internet.

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