Celebrating and revitalising heritage languages

To celebrate UNESCO’s International Mother Language Day, the NSW Department of Education is highlighting programs we offer to keep languages alive.

Students performing on a stage. Students performing on a stage.
Image: A Tibetan orchestra showcasing the Department’s commitment to celebrating cultural diversity and language as we celebrate International Mother Language day.

Since 1999, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) has designated February 21 as International Mother Language Day to celebrate students’ universal right to study their heritage languages.

The day traces its origin to 21 February 1952 when five Bangladeshi students were shot dead for breaking a curfew to protest their right to speak Bangla, their mother tongue.

Under relentless pressure following the shootings, the Pakistan Government (which governed the region that became Bangladesh) recognised Bangla as an official language in 1956.

To coincide with this year’s celebration of International Mother Language Day, a new global think-tank of heritage language academics and practitioners will launch a global call to action for the preservation and revitalisation of heritage language education for multilingual children worldwide.

Community languages programs

The NSW Department of Education is helping to preserve heritage languages with three programs aimed at students from Years K-12.

The programs aim to assist young learners connect with their ancestral languages, heritage and culture, thereby fostering a sense of identity and belonging.

Since the mid-1980s, the department has been instrumental in coordinating the funding for not-for-profit community organisations to operate after-school language classes through the Community Languages Schools Program.

The program, where 62 languages are taught in 560 locations across NSW, each week engages more than 3,000 volunteer teachers in delivering language programs to more than 35,000 students.

These community languages’ schools play a crucial role in preserving and strengthening language learning, through positively impacting students overall educational outcomes.

By equipping students with language skills, these schools contribute to a deeper appreciation of multiculturalism and interculturalism in both the school and the broader community.

In addition to after-school programs, the department's Community Languages Program K-6, supports students in maintaining or developing skills in their background languages during school hours.

This program, offered in 136 NSW public primary schools, engages more than 42,000 students across 29 languages. Through the study of language and culture, students gain communication skills and develop a deeper understanding of their cultural heritage, fostering personal identity and self-esteem.

The Secondary College of Languages (SCL) is a department school with a unique context where students have the opportunity to delve deeper into their heritage language.

With 13 campuses located across NSW, SCL provides face-to-face language education to more than 2,700 students from Year 5 to Year 12. In 2023, SCL celebrated 15 students who achieved first in course in HSC languages.

The college offers courses aligned with the language syllabuses of the NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA), ensuring students receive recognition for their language proficiency through certifications such as the Record of School Achievement (RoSA) and Higher School Certificate (HSC).

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