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Statement by President Higgins marking International Mother Language Day, 21 February

Date: Wed 20th Feb, 2019 | 18:05

“Today, on International Mother Languages Day, in the International Year of Indigenous Languages, we are invited to consider the vital importance of languages.

It should be a matter of great concern to us that, around the world, indigenous languages and the complex systems of knowledge and meaning they contain are facing extinction.

The United Nations Education, Scientific and Education Organisation UNESCO has estimated that 600 languages have disappeared over the course of the last century and that on average once every three months another language is being lost to the world.

This year, as here in Ireland we mark the centenary of the establishment of our democracy, along with the events that led to the establishment of our national independence, it is appropriate that we highlight the importance of our languages for our national identity, cohesion and development.

Our languages carry a reflection of who we are as a nation, and the words we choose not only mirror, but also shape, our vision of the world around us – a world in a continuous process of change. Our language enables us to be a participant in that change, rather than its victim.

The United Nations set the 21st of February as International Mother Language Day, to commemorate the protests in Dhaka on that day in 1952, against the exclusion of Bangla as one of the official languages in what was then East Pakistan. Our own history has many examples of how the denial of a people’s right to use its own language can lead to dreadful instances of injustice and alienation, where the right to defend oneself against accusations of criminality was not allowed.

Today, let us remind each other of the power of language and the wealth that comes from cultural and linguistic diversity. Let us use this diversity to encourage dialogue, mutual understanding, innovation and “samhlaíocht agus cruthaitheacht”, imagination and creativity.

As we mark the United Nations International Mother Language Day, let us commit ourselves to respecting the power of words and language to empower, rather than exclude, and to heal, rather than hurt.”






  • International Mother Language Day was proclaimed by the General Conference of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November 1999, and has been observed every year since February 2000, to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism.
  • The year 2019 has been dedicated as the International Year of Languages, to highlight the vital role that languages play in ensuring cultural diversity and intercultural dialogue.
  • At least 43% of the estimated 6,000 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 less than a hundred are used in the digital world. Globally 40 per cent of the population does not have access to an education in a language they speak or understand. The United Nations estimate that every two weeks a language disappears, taking with it an entire cultural and intellectual heritage.