REPRESENTATION International Mother Tongue Day February 21


International Mother Language Day falls on February 21 each year. 
Feature Editor, Eva Wong Nava, takes a look at what this day celebrates and 
shares some books that help children learn more than one language.


"Mother Tongue is so much more than just a language, it is a root, a core part of what makes us who we are. It’s the part of our identity that isn’t constrained by a border or a physical place." 
Delicia Ong, owner of De Ziremi a bilingual bookstore. 

Like many people in the world I can speak more than one language. I’m proficiently bilingual in Mandarin and English and effectively multi-lingual in English, Mandarin, Cantonese and Italian. I was born in a multi-lingual and multi-cultural nation  Singapore. My ears were trained from birth to recognise various forms of English, like the creolized Singlish, Chinese languages like Cantonese, Fukien and Teochew, Malay, an Austronesian language, and Tamil, one of the many languages spoken in the Indian sub-continent.

Out of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world about 1,000 of them come from the region of Southeast Asia where Singapore is situated along with ten other nations – Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Timor-Leste, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.

But due the legacy of colonialism my mother tongue is English. It’s the first language I heard as a newborn and one that I was brought up in. This may be confusing for many as my ethnicity demands that a Chinese language is my mother tongue.

A mother tongue language is defined simply as 'the first language that you learn when you are a baby, rather than a language learned at school or as an adult', (Cambridge Dictionary), or 'the language which a person has grown up speaking from early childhood', (Oxford Dictionary). The more technical definition, or a linguist’s definition of mother tongue, veers from 'the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood by the person at the time the data was collected', (Statistique Canada), to 'the in-born language, which a baby has already familiarized even in the gestation of mother before it was born', (ResearchGate).

Can one have two mother tongues? The answer is yes. This is possible if TWO languages are introduced to an infant simultaneously at birth and maintained throughout the child’s development. My children are bilingual Italian-English. They learned Mandarin when they were younger but chose to be bilingual instead.

Because the world is a Babel of multiple tongues International Mother Language Day on February 21 is a UN celebration day which 'recognizes that languages and multilingualism can advance inclusion' which in turn means that nobody or no child is left behind. (Source)

I spoke to two people who are busy promoting their mother tongue languages in the work they do.

Wong-Jardin and her family, courtesy of Angelina Wong-Jardin.

Angelina Wong-Jardin
is the creator of the latest series of interactive bilingual sound books called Fish Tales & Rhymes. The bilingual board books introduce children to some of the most classic nursery rhymes and poems sung by children across Chinese speaking communities all over the world. As a mumpreneur and inspired by her two sons, she wanted to find a more effective way for language and culture to be passed on to the next generation of Chinese language learners so that the journey will be less begrudging and more enjoyable.

Debasmita Dasgupta is an internationally published award-winning Bengali illustrator, graphic novelist and film producer from Kolkata currently living in the UK. She has illustrated many stories with publishers across the globe including Barefoot Books, HarperCollins UK, Oxford University Press UK, Scholastic India, World Scientific Singapore and Penguin Random House India  to name a few! She told me that, “February 21 is known as 'Ekushe February' and it is a very special occasion for many Bengalis, like me, because so many lives were sacrificed for this language!”

Debasmita is the illustrator of Jokhu and the Big Scare written by Priyadarshini Gogoi and published by Tulika Books. The story is written entirely in the Bengali script. This is an important book because there are nearly 230 million speakers of Bangla which makes it the sixth most spoken language in the world and children whose mother tongue is Bangla deserve a book such as this.
Images courtesy of Debasmita Dasgupta 

My Italian husband speaks French and when we lived in France our conversations would be peppered with French phrases. According to the Organization of International Francophonie, (OIF), there is an estimated 220 million native speakers and around 320 million total speakers of French in the world. In the United Kingdom there are 11,281,136, according Catherine Reynolds. And in Canada there are 11,060,585.

Image courtesy of Scholastic Canada 

Understanding these statistics made me realise why Scholastic Canada was keen to translate one of my picture books into French. I Love Chinese New Year is now titled J’aime Le Nouvel An Chinois and available in Canada and the USA. For Canadian-Chinese who are bilingual in French and English this is a book that they can see themselves in. Canada has a large Chinese population. In the 2021 census more than 1.7 million people reported being of Chinese origin.

If you’re learning Italian and would like your children to rhyme in Italiano look no further than Julia Donaldson’s books. My personal favourite is Monkey Puzzle which in Italian is titled Dov’è la mia mamma? 

It is said that rhyming picture books are a hard-sell because rhymes are hard to translate. But Laura Pelaschiar did a great job of it. She had to make some minor changes for the rhyme scheme to work in Italian so the butterfly got a name – Rita. And she reinterpreted the title and morphed it into Where is My Mother? in Italian which in essence is what Monkey Puzzle is really about  a monkey working out where their mother is.

What you can do on International Mother Language Day?

You could...

 – Find a rare mother tongue language that you’ve not heard of yet. 

 – Ask your friends how they say something in their language. 

 – Learn to say hello and thank you in a new language.

 *Header image: Ell Rose and Tita Berredo; 
all other images courtesy of the authors 


Eva Wong Nava is a child of the diaspora. She lives between worlds and exists in many universes. Eva writes for children in English because this is her first language and mother tongue. She reads to her children in French and Italian because she loves how these two Romance languages sound. 

Find Eva on X and Instagram @evawongnava and email her at 


Ell Rose is the Illustration Features Editor of Words & Pictures.

Find their work at

Follow them on Instagram and Twitter.

Contact them at

Tita Berredo is the Illustrator Coordinator of SCBWI British Isles and the Art Director of Words & Pictures. Contact

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