Mother language day 2020: Celebrating cross-border languages for peaceful dialogue

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UNESCO is celebrating ‘Languages without borders’ for International Mother Language Day 2020 on 21 February. Local, cross-border languages can promote peaceful dialogue and help to preserve indigenous heritage. Cultural and linguistic diversity are key for sustainable societies and help preserve the differences in cultures and languages that foster tolerance and respect for others.

Around the world, some local languages, rather than vanishing, are in fact flourishing. Many of these fast-evolving languages are cross-border languages. For example, both regional variants of Maori – spoken in New Zealand, in the Cook Islands, and Sami, spoken across Northern Europe, have benefitted from efforts on the part of governments to revitalize these languages, which started in the 1980s.

Borders in many parts of the world have been artificially imposed. From sub-Saharan Africa, to the Middle East to Latin America, many borders were negotiated and drawn arbitrarily splitting communities, which had existed for centuries. This process has contributed to conflict all over the world. Linguists specializing in cross border languages have pointed out that for such communities very often official borders do not ‘exist’. They continue to trade, share cultural practices and communicate in a common local language. Cross-border languages are naturally dynamic because they are cross-fertilized by people from two or more countries.

Among many other cross-border languages, Kiswahili is one such example. This sub-Saharan African language is spoken by 120 to 150 million people. It is a hybrid tongue composed of linguistic elements from Southern Africa, Arabia, Europe and India. Its evolution tells a rich story of migration, trade, slavery, colonialism. Today, it is both sub-Saharan Africa’s most important lingua franca, and an enabling force promoting African unity and diplomacy. It is a national and official language in the United Republic of Tanzania, a national language in Kenya and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is a cross-border lingua franca in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, northern Mozambique and southern Somalia, and to a lesser extent, Malawi, Zambia and southern Sudan.

Quechua is another example. The language of the ancient Incan Empire has now evolved to become a family of related indigenous languages, spoken by some 8 to 10 million people in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Chile, Colombia and Argentina.

The dynamism of cross-border languages means that they can provide space for indigenous culture and traditions to thrive. In the right circumstances, they can also be powerful tools for the promotion of peace between neighbouring countries. Bonds of empathy and shared heritage on either side of a border and among several countries in a region increase solidarity among neighbouring peoples and allow people to celebrate the complexity of their multi-layered identities.

The development of Multilingual Education based on Mother Tongue Instruction, not only improves learning outcomes, but also helps to maintain linguistic diversity and multilingualism, a key element of inclusion. Cross-border languages have the potential to foster powerful emotional and cultural ties between neighbouring communities often living on either side of international borders.

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