There are a lot of wonderful things about living in Pawling. A small community means a caring, personal one – something that is becoming more and more difficult to find in a quickly urbanizing world. But a concept that Pawlingites miss out on sometimes is the idea of diversity, and the sense that we are part of much larger world.
February 21st is International Mother Language Day, when people around the world are invited to embrace and celebrate the language they grew up with. For many of us, it’s English, the language we are still speaking. But this is not true for everyone.
To gain basic aural and oral skills in English takes hundreds of hours of exposure, practice, and studying. You would have to double or triple that amount to reach a level that could be considered fluent. It is obviously a massive enterprise to learn a new language, and one that many Pawling residents have had to undertake to get by in our town. Some of them still use their mother tongue at home… others don’t. On February 21st, those people have a chance to celebrate the language they grew up with and make a special effort to teach others about it. Of IML Day, the United Nations website says, “Languages are the most powerful instruments of preserving and developing our tangible and intangible heritage.” While it’s important to learn English because we live in America, it doesn’t mean we need to eschew the languages of our heritage.
IML Day was created by the UN in November of 1999. The UN website reports that, “The date represents the day in 1952 when students demonstrating for recognition of their language, Bangla, as one of the two national languages of then Pakistan, were shot and killed by police in Dhaka, the capital of what is now Bangladesh.”
Some ideas on how to observe this holiday include learning a few sentences in the language of your heritage, teaching someone else how to say something in a language other than English, or doing some research on languages that interest you.
And if English is your first language, you have quite a lot to be proud of, too. This language is a fascinating one. It is an amalgamation of Latin (from the Romans), old Scandinavian dialects (from the Vikings), French (from the Normans), and various Germanic languages (hence the term “Anglo-Saxon” – the Angles and the Saxons were two tribes that settled in modern-day England). This new blend displaced the Celtic and Brythonic languages that existed in England until about seventh century A.D.
Old English, which is a language almost entirely separate from what we speak, grew and changed until around the 12th – 13th centuries. After that, Old English shifted to Early Modern English, and the language became more standardized as far as spelling and grammar conventions went. In the 1500s, the King James Bible and the works of William Shakespeare hugely impacted phraseology and vocabulary (we can thank Shakespeare for “hurry,” “lonely,” “road,” and “majestic,” for instance).
Samuel Johnson’s 1755 publication of the dictionary was another huge leap forward in the creation of Modern English. Today, English has the largest number of words as well as the second largest number of speakers, second only to Mandarin.
But IML Day isn’t just about languages – it’s about remembering where you came from. Sometimes we take for granted the immigrants who have brought culture and worldliness to our quaint little village. Enjoy your International Mother Language Day this February 21st!
Keen to embrace your mother tongue? Check out these awesome sites:
United Nations, on International Mother Language Day: http://www.un.org/en/events/motherlanguageday/
History of the English language: http://www.anglik.net/englishlanguagehistory.htm
Words and phrases that Shakespeare invented: http://www.nosweatshakespeare.com/resources/shakespeare-words.htm
King James Bible in English: http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/nov/21/king-james-bible-english-language
A fabulous poem about pronunciation: http://www.esatclear.ie/~irish.trade/oj000010.htm
A quiz on our quirky, lovable English language: http://grammar.about.com/od/tests/a/A-Quirky-Quiz-On-The-English-Language.htm
Christine O’Neill is a student of English and French Language at SUNY Geneseo.