“He who does not know foreign languages does not know anything about his own.” - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
February 21st is celebrated as International Mother Tongue Day
. One’s mother tongue is one's native language; the language that is learned by children from their parents and passed from one generation to the next. Worldwide, there are about 45,000 different languages and dialects spoken. The top ten list of languages spoken around the world in terms of numbers of speakers is:1. Chinese (Mandarin): 1,075,000,0002. English: 514,000,0003. Hindustani 496,000,0004. Spanish: 425,000,0005. Russian: 275,000,0006. Arabic: 256,000,0007. Bengali: 215,000,0008. Portuguese: 194,000,0009. Malay-Indonesian: 176,000,00010. French: 129,000,000
This list is a little deceptive as it includes both native speakers as well as groups that use the language habitually as a second language. For example, while English doesn't have the most speakers, it is the official language of more countries than any other language. Its speakers hail from all around the world, including the U.S.A, Australia, England, Zimbabwe, the Caribbean, Hong Kong, South Africa, and Canada. Increasingly it is being used as the international language in fields as diverse as industry, business, diplomacy, sport, politics, aviation, shipping, the arts, etc.
It is expected that the number of languages in the world will be cut by half, in a century. This is largely to be blamed on increasing use of some languages worldwide as preferred means of international communication, increased coverage of the world by mass media and broadcasting in a small number of the top 10 languages, because of cultural imperialism and because of status and potential advantages socially and economically of being able to use one of the major languages of the world. Minority languages and dialects in several countries around the world may be battling racial and ethnic prejudices and their use may be minimised as they may be seen to be socially disadvantageous.
Most countries have one main language. For example, in Bangladesh the official language is Bengali. Some countries have two or three main languages. In Switzerland, for example, the official languages are German, French and Italian. Many Swiss speak all three, as well as English! South Africa, has 11 official languages: English, Afrikaans, Ndebele, Sepedi, Sesotho, Swati, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu.
Although Australia has only one official language, English, it also has about 400 language groups living in it. It has about 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander language groups, plus about 150 languages brought by migrants since 1788.
One’s mother tongue is a wonderful and culturally significant heritage. A country (especially one rich in a diverse linguistic heritage) should be consciously trying to combat stereotypes, prejudices and misconceptions about language, so as to contribute to the richness of human civilisation and culture. The more languages one speaks the broader one’s mind becomes, the more expansive one’s thinking, and generally the more culturally sensitive one’s attitude.
My mother tongue is Modern Greek, which I speak fluently, but I also speak English as a native speaker. I speak Italian and French conversationally and I can also understand the gist of what is said in another couple of languages. I have studied Classical Greek and Latin and I regret not having had the time to sit and learn a few more languages – perhaps a suitable occupation in my retirement…
And as a final tribute to the mother tongue, here is an extract from Greek Nobel Laureate poet Odysseus Elytis
, translated from Greek into English for you:I was given the Hellenic tongue my house a humble one on the sandy shores of Homer. My only care my language on the sandy shores of Homer. The sea-bream and perchwindbeaten verbs green currents with the caerulean all that I saw blazing in my entrails sponges, medusae with the first words of the Sirens pink shells with their first dark tremors."
(from Axion Esti, 1959)