Tribute to ‘Mother Languages’ fosters respect for cultural diversity

Tribute to ‘Mother Languages’ fosters respect for cultural diversity

Michael Wood

Wellington, February 21, 2019

Labour MP Michael Wood

‘International Mother Language Day’ is being observed today, (Thursday, October 21) to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism worldwide.

The term ‘Mother Tongue’ or ‘Mother Language’ is used for the language that a person learnt as a child at home (usually from their parents).

Children growing up in bilingual homes can, according to this definition, have more than one mother tongue or native language.

It was first announced by UNESCO in 1999 and was formally recognised by the United Nations General Assembly in a resolution that established 2008 as the ‘International Year of Languages.

Languages under threat

International Mother Language Day has been observed annually since 2000 to promote peace and multilingualism around the world and to protect all mother languages.

It is observed on February 21 to recognise the 1952 ‘Bengali Language Movement’ in Bangladesh.

It is very important for migrant and refugee communities to preserve their languages.

Language has implications for people’s identity, communication, education, social integration and development.

Due to the processes of globalisation, especially the migration of young children, languages can be under threat or run the risk of disappearing totally. If languages become extinct, the world’s rich heritage of cultural diversity will be diminished. Invaluable traditions, memories and unique models of expression and thought will also be lost.

It is estimated that at least 43% of the 6000 languages spoken in the world are endangered. Only a few hundred languages have genuinely been given a place in education systems and the public domain, and fewer than 100 are used in the digital world.

Disappearing heritage

It is said that every two weeks a language will disappear, taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage.

All moves to preserve and promote the dissemination of mother tongues will not only encourage linguistic diversity and multilingual education but will also contribute to the development of linguistic and cultural traditions all over the world.

It will also promote solidarity on the basis of mutual understanding, tolerance and dialogue between different cultures.

Pioneering preservation

Some countries in the world have recognised the importance of preserving mother languages among multicultural communities. Canada and Australia are pioneers in this area. In Australia, some communities are able to offer young people their mother tongue as a high school subject.

As an example, Sinhalese language can be studied in Melbourne schools and there are more than 10 Sinhala language newspapers published as well as several radio programmes and a TV programme in Sinhala funded by the SBS.

Funding enables such smaller communities to preserve their languages.

Status in New Zealand

Currently, community languages are taught mainly through cultural associations or language schools and adult community education classes.

A handful of languages are taught as a part of the school curriculum in a few schools including Hindi, Tagalog, Cook Islands Māori, Samoan, Tongan, Niuean, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Bahasa (Indonesian).  

Several languages are taught through private language schools. I am very encouraged to see more and more communities setting up language schools – the successful Waitakere Hindi school is one leading example.

The University of Auckland offers courses in Chinese, Cook Islands Māori, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Samoan, Spanish and Tongan languages.

Government Support

There are several national strategies that are set up to discuss the need for languages education, including heritage languages, in schools.

Strategy for Languages in Education in Aotearoa New Zealand 2019-2033 was set up by the Auckland Languages Working Group in August 2018. This document sets out a 15-year plan to strengthen languages in education in New Zealand. 

The government is also supporting a Members Bill which aims to strengthen primary and intermediate schools’ access to language learning through additional resources provided by the Government to fund professional development, language specialists, and online resources.

The Funding Channel

It is encouraging that in New Zealand, organisations such as the Federation of Multicultural Councils receives funding from a variety of sources, as seen from its latest Annual Report. The Federation is a non-government body acting as an umbrella organisation for the ethnic communities of New Zealand. Its primary role is to promote, support and share information among regional councils and New Zealand’s ethnic communities.

Its Annual Report states that it has received grants from a range of organisations such as the Ministry of Education, Office of Ethnic Communities, Lotteries Grants Board, Todd Foundation, Lion Foundation, Human Rights Commission, Department of Internal Affairs, NZ Community Trust, NZ Police, Auckland Council, The Southern Trust, Tindall Foundation, Foundation North, Four Winds Foundation, First Sovereign Trust, Peiorus Trust, Think Tank Trust, Working Together Trust.

Funding for community groups from the Department of Internal Affairs are found at

Contestable Fund

The Ethnic Communities Development Fund is a contestable fund which offers up to $520,000 to be distributed in one funding round each year and details can be found at

Auckland Council also offers several grants and information is available at

We as a Government recognise the importance of preserving the languages of New Zealanders and are committed to supporting our communities.

I wish you all a very happy International Mother Language Day today (February 21).

Michael Wood is elected Member of Parliament from Mount Roskill in Auckland and is Parliamentary Under-Secretary to the Minister for Ethnic Communities.

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