If you are reading this, you are one of the 1.3 billion people who use English as a first or second language. Nonetheless, International Mother Language Day, celebrated annually on Feb 21, calls on us to remember the importance of all languages.
Breathing is natural, easily taken for granted. In the same way, people often overlook the importance of their mother language, or mother tongue, broadly defined as the first language acquired in childhood. This is particularly true when people mistakenly judge a well-known language like English, Mandarin Chinese or Thai as being superior to languages spoken by fewer people.
The mother tongue is the foundation of cognitive development. Through it we develop a sense of self and begin to explore the world. Children who are compelled to learn in a language that is neither their mother tongue nor a language they understand are educationally disadvantaged; they are more likely to repeat grades and less likely to go on to higher education. Indeed, the World Bank has found that half of the world's out-of-school children speak minority languages.
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