Maintaining the ability to speak more than one language can be a challenge, especially if your mother language isn’t spoken by the people around you.
The United Nations has declared Feb. 21 as International Mother Language Day. According to the UN, the day has been observed since February 2000 to “promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.”
The Saskatchewan Organization for Heritage Language (SOHL) held a celebration on Feb. 24, to recognize the many different languages that are spoken in Regina.
“[International Language Day is] a really nice opportunity,” SOHL executive director Tamara Ruzic said. “It’s being celebrated all over the world. It’s a perfect opportunity to showcase multiculturalism and the diversity that exists in the world, and in our case, that exists in Regina.”
The 10th annual celebration featured a number of guest speakers and entertainers. “The Rock Cree Project” featured Cree and English music performed by Bill Cook, a language instructor at the First Nations University of Canada, and singer and filmmaker Tessa Desnomie.
SOHL runs a number of language schools in the Regina, Saskatoon, Lumsden, Kipling and North Battleford. Languages taught at these schools include Arabic, Bangla, Cree, Filipino, Greek, Spanish, Uzbek and Yoruba.
Ruzic said the language schools are open to people of all ages. Credit courses and travel courses are also available at the schools.
“[International Language Day is] a really nice opportunity…It’s being celebrated all over the world. It’s a perfect opportunity to showcase multiculturalism and the diversity that exists in the world, and in our case, that exists in Regina.” – Tamara Ruzic
Ruzic said learning a new language can become more challenging as people get older. As a refugee from Yugoslavia, she arrived in Canada when she was 10 years old. She said she quickly picked up English as a second language and lost her Serbian accent. For her parents, Ruzic noted the accent is still noticeable on long “a” sounds and the word “the.”
“It’s always hard to learn a new language, but it’s even harder depending on the age of the learner,” she said. “They always say children, it’s the easiest for them to soak things up like a sponge.”
Ruzic added that she had friends who came to Canada when they were 14 but still have accents to day.
“Fourteen tends to be the cutoff age,” she said. “It’s kind of neat how that works.”
Many groups from the language schools in Regina performed songs and dances, which reflected the cultures from where the languages are spoken. The Bangla School of Regina performed a song that represents Feb. 21 and is performed all over Bangladesh throughout the month of February.
“[The celebration is] to show the talent and give exposure to these heritage language schools who are doing so much on so little resources,” she said. “They really get modest funding from the government and our organization. A lot of dedicated volunteers are giving lots of hours to keep these schools [going].”
International Mother Language Day began in 1962, after students in Dhaka, Bangladesh were shot to death by police officers, during a demonstration that aimed to recognize Bengali as one of the two national languages of the region.
The City of Regina declared Feb. 20 to 26 to be International Heritage Language Week. According to Ruzic, SOHL wrote to the city and requested the proclamation to be whichever week Feb. 21 lands on. This year, the City of Saskatoon also recognized the week.
Ruzic said it’s good to have recognition through these celebrations, particularly for languages that are in danger of fading away.
“It’s nice to see recognition for those languages, because in our province, and country – there’s obviously French and English – but there’s not a whole lot of recognition for other languages,” she said. “Especially in our province, we need to provide recognition for all of these other languages, [including] Aboriginal languages, especially when so many of them are in danger of becoming extinct. It’s important to have events that celebrate languages and multiculturalism and just remind the public how important it is to keep them alive.”
Photo courtesy of SOHL