Gosnell Yorke, Zambia Daily Mail, March 1, 2024

THE United Nations (UN) International Mother Language Day is celebrated on February 21 every year. The theme for this year was ‘’Multilingual education: A pillar of learning and intergenerational learning’’.

Driven by the fundamental and defensible conviction that language, especially the mother tongue or the first indigenous or native language of a speaker, does matter, the idea behind the celebration of what we now have as International Mother Language Day goes back to 1948 when Urdu was proclaimed as the sole national language of East Pakistan, as it then was, now Bangladesh.

This proclamation was issued in spite of the fact that Urdu was not the most widely spoken language in the country. Bangla was.
The Urdu proclamation precipitated a protracted and major conflict over language use and policy between the government and the Bangla-speaking people.

This language-based conflict eventuated in the unfortunate massacre of a number of Bangla-speaking activists on February 21, 1952.

It is in honour of those ‘’language martyrs’’ that February 21 was chosen by UNESCO as the day on which to celebrate International Mother Language Day.

Although the day was first approved at the General Conference of UNESCO on November 17, 1999, and later formally adopted by the UN General Assembly based on Resolution 56/262 in 2002, mention ought also to be made of the important role which Kofi Annan, the late Ghanaian and seventh UN Secretary General, played in helping to make International Mother Language Day a reality.

On January 9, 1998, for example, just one year into his first term as UN secretary general, two Bangladeshis (one resident in Canada at the time) formally requested Mr Annan to establish International Mother Language Day and to take action to preserve all languages – the approximately 7,000 languages currently spoken worldwide.

And due to his language-promoting influence as secretary general, among other things, the UN General Assembly, under the influence of UNESCO, ended up declaring 2008, one year after Mr Annan left office as secretary general, the International Year of Languages.

Given the rich linguistic diversity of the continent with its approximately 2,000 mother languages, perhaps it is not least surprising that the African Union (AU) has also committed itself to the preservation, protection and promotion of the continent’s many languages.

As one of the specialised institutions of AU, the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN) is vested with this task. The basic mandate of ACALAN, officially established by AU in January 2006 at the Sixth Ordinary Session of the Assembly of the Heads of State and Government, is to develop and promote African languages for a peaceful, prosperous and integrated Africa.
Unlike the UN, which has no African language listed among its six official languages in which it transacts its business, to wit, Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish, AU uses Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Swahili as its six official languages.

However, given the sometimes conflict-generating politics of language as we mentioned earlier in terms of Urdu and Bangla in Bangladesh (East Pakistan as it then was), both the UN and AU continue to struggle with how best to valorise the many others of its languages not considered official.

The UN, for example, expends concerted efforts not only to ensure parity of use among its six official languages above-mentioned, but also to communicate with its global constituency through the medium of such non-official languages such as Hindi, Portuguese, Swahili, and Urdu.

To its credit, the UN even created World Swahili Day in July 2022, thus making (so far) both Swahili and Portuguese (the mother language of Antonio Guterres, the current UN secretary general) the only two non-official languages which have a day of recognition of their own.

Confronted with the reality of its own linguistic diversity and not desirous of having African languages serve as instruments of conflict among its approximately 1.4 billion citizens, the AU sometimes finds itself in an ambivalent position where promotion of its one African official language is concerned.

To its credit, during the recently held 37th AU Summit of the Heads of State and Government from February 17 to 18, 2024, we found that not only was the name of the organisation written in Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish, but also in Swahili (as Umoja wa Afrika).

Earlier, in 2007, and to her credit, Gertrude Mongella, Tanzanian Member of Parliament and first president of the PanAfrican Parliament, an Organ of the AU, chose to give one of her presidential addresses in Swahili, also the official language of her own country.

This public valorisation of Swahili was unlike the case earlier at the first-ever AU-sponsored African Diaspora Summit, which took place in South Africa on May 25, 2012.

On that occasion, the Swahili translation did not appear on the cover of the draft summit declaration alongside Arabic, English, French and Portuguese (Spanish was not considered an official language then).

Interestingly, perhaps not wanting to appear exclusionary in its African language policy with the everpresent danger and potential for conflict as was discussed earlier in relation to Urdu and Bangla, the list of official languages in which AU has committed itself to transact its own business as reflected in the summit reads as follows: Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Swahili and any other African language.

In my considered opinion, that remains the linguistic challenge with which the AU might continue to grapple for some time.
In all its grappling, however, may peace and good sense ultimately prevail for the pan-African good of the continent – for the good of all 55 AU member states, of which multilingual and peace-loving Zambia is but a proud and productive member.

The author is coordinator of the Lusaka branch office of Dag Hammarskjöld Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, Copperbelt University and a Southern Africa Regional Coordinator for Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race.