First promoted by the United Nations' cultural organisation UNESCO in 1999, it was formally recognised by the UN General Assembly in 2008.
The assembly's resolution called on all its member states "to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world".
In Papua New Guinea, which has an estimated 800 languages, the Summer Institute of Linguistics is at the heart of that process.
Presenter: Richard Ewart
Speaker: Tim Lithgow, director, Summer Institute of Linguistics, Papua New Guinea
LITHGOW: How a language is preserved ultimately is by people continuing to use it, it's helping people understand the richness of their language. It's also the University of Papua New Guinea wants to have linguistic papers, so part of the work that a linguistic does is write language documentation ground papers, dictionaries in languages. Community are often asking for dictionaries so that they can retain that. We also provide publications. The AIDS booklet is one of the things, AIDS is a problem in PNG and growing, and one of the ways that we're helping people understand the depth of the problem is to communicate it in their mother tongue. Again the language wider implication is very basic, it's lacking depth and not really clear. Whereas to communicate in their mother tongue enabled it to be communicated where it really hits the heart, it really touches deep. So in places where we have language work we translate an AIDS booklet into the local language so that people really understand. So the big part of how is keeping people understanding the value of their language and culture and how that's interrelated, and keeping people using their mother tongue as they both … with the language of wider communication.
EWART: One of the stated aims of World Mother Language Day as put forward by UNESCO is this idea of bilingual and multilingual education. But when you're dealing with 800 different languages in Papua New Guinea, I mean surely it must be nearly impossible to achieve that for everybody?
LITHGOW: It's a huge task absolutely and the government's struggling with that whole issue. The government policy used to be having the first couple of years of education in the mother tongue where people are learning to read and write, learning basic education in their language, and then transferring that skill into the foreign language of English and pidgin English. So it's a challenge yes, a huge challenge yes. And in places where there have been well resourced and well trained mother tongue teachers who are teaching their own children to read and write their own language, it has been very effective. Yet in places where there isn't that resource, where there isn't that capability being developed, it has been a significant struggle, that's absolutely true.
EWART: What impact do you think what you would call broadly the digital age could have on this situation? Plainly there will be large parts of Papua New Guinea where the digital age has hardly touched as yet. But as the years go by, as the technology becomes more sophisticated, is this going to be the best way to preserve languages and to allow the kind of multilingual education that UNESCO is calling for?
LITHGOW: It can, the digital age is certainly arriving in significant parts of PNG through mobile phones. Roughly half, two-thirds of the seven million people in Papua New Guinea do have a mobile phone. So having people texting each other in the local language is a way that we're seeing people not being afraid of the technology and using it. Where that goes also is, a way to help people do that is to devise alphabets with the community that it can be done on a mobile phone. Part of the challenges with linguistic organisations is they want to be linguistically accurate and correct, and therefore we tend to want to have symbols like French and Swedish and Norwegian where you have umlauts and grauts and acutes and different characters that actually convey accurately what that letter sound is. English doesn't do that, English we have 26 letters but we have about 40 sounds, 40 phonemes in English. But we can use a mobile phone because every letter is there. So part of the way language development agencies can work with communities is the setup of an initial alphabet, have it using the basic Roman scripts, and that way they can use a mobile phone as a form of communication. So that's the first part of that. Computers and that level is a deeper level of electronic age, which works in the cities in Papua New Guinea but very quickly when you get into regional areas it doesn't, because there's not 24 hour power, there's not phone lines. So mobile phone is the area of digital age that is really impacting PNG.
EWART: Would I be right in thinking when you're talking about people texting in their mother tongue on a mobile phone, that for many of them this might actually be the first time that they have in a broad sense written their language down?
LITHGOW: That is correct, the first time they're writing it is on a mobile phone so having characters that work is certainly a way to ensure that that continues the use and the practice of their mother tongue.
EWART: Would you say that we're in a better position perhaps than ever before to preserve languages though, that there is now less excuse really for allowing a language to disappear?
LITHGOW: Yes that is true. We have less reason to let it disappear. We also have better resources than ever before. We have better ways we can be helping communities keeping that alive. There are a lot of programs that are easy dictionary makers. We have a program within the Summer Institute of Linguistics called We Say, and it's a basic dictionary writing program that doesn't need a PhD person to do it. Local people can use this as a way to even do the initial stage of developing their own dictionary. So yeah we have resources and we have information, we have awareness, and generally we have governments that are likewise concerned about their mother tongue preservation. It's not like it was 100 years ago when generally and colonial powers are coming in and demanding people speak English and speak French and German instead of their mother tongue. The world has moved on which is a good thing. To again realise it's the both and, it's not the either/or, you can use the language of wider communication, but similarly you can and there's great value in keeping your mother tongue alive. So yes, we're in a better position than previous generations to be positive about keeping mother tongues alive.