February 21 is observed as the International Mother Tongue Day every year since 1999 when UNESCO adopted a resolution for the ‘preservation and promotion of mother tongues.’ It proved significant for a multi-lingual country like Nepal that was already experiencing the emergence of dozens of organisations dedicated to the promotion of ethnic languages particularly after the 1990 political changeover. Over the years, Nepali linguists and ethnic right activists have highlighted the importance of preserving mother tongue since, according to them, the use of mother tongues can lead to flawless expression of sentiments and viewpoints.
It is important to keep the ‘mother tongue movement’ alive so that the coming generations would not forget their own languages in the midst of compulsive popularity of English language. While Nepali is a rastra bhasa, ethnic tongues like Avadhi, Maithili, Bhojpuri and others are rastriya bhasas, as enshrined in the 1990 Constitution. It is thus beneficial to promote and respect one’s mother tongue, which forms an important component of cultural heritage that gives Nepal and Nepalis a distinct identity. However, although the state has already recognised the ‘right to exist’ for the ethnic minorities, which also includes recognition of mother tongue, it has at best paid only a lip service to granting due status to their languages. The movement would be considered successful only when, for instance, education is provided to students in their mother tongues to a certain level.
Meanwhile, given the globalised context under which today’s workforce has to operate, it is not adequate to rely only on knowledge of one’s mother tongue. Today’s reality demands every person to be familiar with as many international languages as possible. While it is important to be thoroughly familiar with mother tongues to preserve the national identity, it is equally necessary to be familiar with regional and international languages also for one to effectively communicate with the rest of the world.