Language is an integral part of one’s identity. It’s not only a means of communication and expression, but also a marker of distinction. According to the United Nations, 7,000 languages will disappear within a few generations.
While most of East York enjoyed Family Day on Feb. 21, the Bengali community celebrated International Mother Language Day at Harmony Hall Centre for Seniors on Gower Street.
Khalilur Rahman, a former professor in Bangladesh, attended this year’s celebration. Teary-eyed, he pointed to the monument erected against the hall’s wall and explained its symbolic meaning.
“The monument is a replica of the original Shahid Minar monument in the city of Dhaka,” he said. “It’s to remember those who sacrificed their lives to fight for their language.”
In 1952, Bangladesh was part of Pakistan. At the time, it was divided into West and East Pakistan (Bangladesh today). When Pakistan proclaimed Urdu as the state language, protests erupted in Bangladesh.
On Feb. 21, activists and students organized a massive protest demanding Bengali as an official language. During the protest, Pakistani police fired at, and killed, unarmed students.
Nazly Sultana, the Bengali program co-ordinator at Harmony Hall, acknowledged the sacrifices they made.
“Today we can talk in Bengali because of them,” she said.
Wrapped in traditional saris, many women were dressed in the colours black and white to symbolize sorrow, respect and happiness.
The celebration kicked off with an art contest for children, followed by singing and dancing. Later, Ward 31 Beaches-East York Councillor Janet Davis presented the Bengali community with a greeting card on behalf of Mayor Rob Ford, expressing city council’s support and best wishes.
“We want our future generations to know what is their culture and heritage,” Sultana said. “It’s the parents’ responsibility and not that of the children to make sure at least one person at home talks in their mother tongue.”
Today the Bengali language does not face a serious risk of extinction, but there are still thousands of other languages worldwide that do. While most people rarely hear about the death of a language, the risk is prevalent.