UAE | General

Mother tongues nurture sense of cultural identity

Unesco marks International Mother Language Day on Sunday. The day has been observed since 2000, and aims to promote "linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism", according to

  • By Shweta Satyan, Community Solutions Editor
  • Published: 00:00 February 21, 2010
  • Gulf News

  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • (Clockwise from top-left) Kenneth Monis, Liza Bathan, Manal Al Ansari, Paul Bathan

Dubai: English may be a universal language, but mother tongues hold the key to communicating culture, an expert has said.

Unesco marks International Mother Language Day on Sunday. The day has been observed since 2000, and aims to promote "linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism", according to

Fatima Badri, a professor at the Department of English at American University of Sharjah (AUS), believes such an initiative is important.

"With English invading all public and private spaces — the world over — an international day celebrating the maintenance of mother tongues is essential," she said in an e-mail interview with Gulf News.

"Language plays an important role in the construction of personal, cultural and social identity," she added.

Liza Bathan, a Filipina nurse in Dubai, said she has always spoken Tagalog with her son Paul Bathan.

She said family members in the Philippines speak the language and this was one way her son could fit in back home.

"This day acknowledges our cultural background," she said. "We have to celebrate that."

Her son, who studies in a Dubai university, said he uses Tagalog only at home and speaks in English with his friends — even if they are Filipino. But he said he would feel a deep sense of loss if he was unable to speak in his mother tongue. "Tagalog connects me to my culture," he said.

With English fast becoming the common thread connecting diverse groups, some youngsters are finding little appeal in learning their mother tongues.

Kenneth Monis, 17, can understand the south Indian language Konkani, but cannot speak it.

"I don't think it is necessary to learn the language as it is not used anywhere," the Sharjah resident said.

His mother, Winnie Monis, said she had hoped her son would speak the language and had debated the topic with her husband. Her husband was of the opinion that it would be better for their children to pick up English because of its universality.

"The elderly people [in India] don't speak English," the homemaker said. "My son will miss out."

Mother tongues face a grave danger if they are not passed on, she said.

"If we don't speak our language, it will perish."

Earlier this month, linguists across the world mourned the death of the last speaker of the ancient language ‘Bo' on India's Andaman Islands.

Fatima, the AUS professor, warns of the "threat" facing the Arabic language in the UAE. Given the nation's large expatriate workforce, English is necessary as a second language, she said.

But it is "dangerous" when children from Arabic-speaking backgrounds are being raised with English as their main language, she said.

"Arabic is being restricted more and more for ritualistic functions… today Arabic is threatened in the UAE."

Manal Al Ansari, a Dubai resident, lists Arabic as her native language.

"My mum encourages me to speak in Arabic… but I prefer English," she said.

But, she said, only Arabic gives her a feeling of belonging to her community when she is travelling.

"When I am in a foreign country, I yearn for this language," she said. "Even an Arab stranger becomes a relative with this language."

UN commemoration: Celebrating diversity

International Mother Language Day is celebrated on February 21 every year. It was proclaimed by the General Conference of Unesco in November 1999 and aims to turn the spotlight on linguistic diversity. The initiative came into being as a recognition of Bangladesh's Language Movement Day, observed in the nation since 1952. Campaigners in what was then East Pakistan sought official language status for Bengali. Six protesters were killed and the demonstrations apparently ignited the independence struggle.

Sources: and

UAE events

The Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation (ADMAF) has rolled out a selection of events designed to celebrate International Mother Language Day especially for students around the UAE.

"The Mother Language Day provides an opportunity to celebrate our mother Arabic language," commented Hoda Al Khamis Kanoo, founder of Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation.

Staff Report

Do you speak your mother tongue? Has it become more convenient for people to speak English these days?

Comments (8)

  1. Added 14:09 February 21, 2010

    I agree with Khurram Asif. Life should be made simple and that crisis begins when we don't understand each other for the reason that simple english is not properly conveyed. I do not suggest of losing one's mother tongue but how can we communicate when A LOT, let's be honest, cannot even construct a proper english sentence. It is sad but true that most people opt for mediocrity in the english language to advocate false nationalism.

    Micah, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  2. Added 12:38 February 21, 2010

    Mother tounge is the basis root which connects people to their core identity.The deepest feeling of heart can be expressed by one through their mother tounge only coz its on that his culture and identity is based.There is a saying in Indian pholosophy that "Mother and Motherland anre bigger than heaven".So one who have roots in his motherland or on his ancistory cannot forget his mother toungue. English is essential that most technical books are written in English and English is universally accepted.But choosing any other language over one's mother tounge is hypocracy and loosing of values.

    Vinod, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  3. Added 12:11 February 21, 2010

    Mother Language Day, February 21st. Its the day when Bangladeshis fought for their right to their mother tongue '' Bangla'' in all aspects of life against the Pakistanis who wanted to use their language ''Urdu'' forcefully upon the roaring tigers. Yes, I am a Bangladeshi and proud to be one. We fought and the fight has now been honored as Mother Language Day. Its very important for all of us to at least know how to speak in our mother tongues, be it Bangla, Hindi, Arabic, etc. Its always the best language to express the deepest feelings. Its the language we connect to our individual identities. Its a gift, we should adore and keep in our lives forever. Its a wealth which is to be passed onto our future generations as it has been passed onto us by our predecessors. We must be proud of the mother language we speak, for its the language of communication between our mothers' and our hearts!

    Tanim, Al Ain, United Arab Emirates

  4. Added 11:56 February 21, 2010

    I am proud for Bangla as i am a Bangladeshi. We pay tribute to our Heroic son SALAM, BARKAT, RAFIQUE, JABBAR AND MANY MORE...who sacrifice their lives for their mother tongue language bangla on 21 Feb. 1952. We honestly respect to all nation's Mother's language.

    Alamgir, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

  5. Added 10:51 February 21, 2010

    yes,my mother tongue is punjabi and normaly use at home, but cannot forget because its our identity,english is international language and for communication it is used but we cannot adopt only english and leave other language. there are thousands of languages which are now vanished from the world because people had left it to use. human has capacity to learn more than one or two langauge,so to keep your identity in the world one should use the mother tongue.

    Shahzad Shaikh, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  6. Added 09:46 February 21, 2010

    life should be made as simple as can be. it doesnt matter what language you speak in as long as we all can get along and be happy. there is no identity crisis in speaking english. I think the identity crisis is when you want to enforce speaking your mother tongue in an environment where everyone else is comfortable speaking english!

    Khurram Asif , Dubai, United Arab Emirates

  7. Added 05:43 February 21, 2010

    I am a Indian Keralite by birth and Malayalam is my mother language. We speak Malayalam at home though I impart English Language Training as a profession. But these days I find that parents do not encourage their kids to speak their mother language. Sometimes it gets hilarious when parents suddenly switch to English when they find someone near to them and the little ones would be blinking as to what their parents are saying. I would say that as English is the medium of instruction in Institutions, the children would definitely learn that. Therefore kids should be encouraged to speak their mother language at home. Happy Mother Language Day!!!

    Mrs Rajeev, Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

  8. Added 01:20 February 21, 2010

    This should be promoted more through media. I've seen the new generation completly ignoring their mother tongue language, especially those from South India (Kerala). Some parents are very proud to say that their children don't speak their mother tongue language. Ignoring your mother tongue language is as same as ignoring your Mother.

    Ancel Fernandez, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

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