International Mother Language Day: My Journey through languages and cultures


By Michelle Hamman | Twitter: @MotherTongues

Last year Michelle Hamman, her husband and two girls lived in three countries on two continents, learning languages and building rich relationships across cultures. She writes why International Mother Language Day is close to her heart.

I love traveling. I love hearing different sounds, eating different foods, seeing things in a different light. I love reading travel books or memoirs written by people who grew up in countries I’ve never been to. And I love sharing this love of travel with my husband and two girls.

Travel teaches me that even though we may look different, sound different, have different amounts of “stuff”, there are also many things that bind us together, like our love for our families and a desire to better our communities. I believe every culture knows unique concepts that can teach us to be happier, healthier human beings and communities. I’ve even started a clothing company, MotherTongues, around this concept. I print meaningful words from other languages on apparel along with a poetic explanation.

This past year we’ve had the wonderful experience of living in Chiapas, Mexico, in Lusaka, Zambia, and in South Africa. My husband had an academic sabbatical and we decided to use the time to do three things:

  1. learn as much Spanish together as a family as we possibly could in three months living in San Cristóbal de las Casas in Mexico. (Our youngest daughter goes to school in a Spanish Immersion class, and we wanted to be able to help in her class and read to her.)
  2. be immersed in Zambian culture in Africa where my husband Jaco could use his skills and talents to teach students at Justo Mwale Theological Seminary for a month.
  3. visit family and friends in South Africa to keep building relationships between the generations.

We met so many interesting people along our sabbatical journey. Here are some of the many things I’ll treasure:

  • Visiting Palenque, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Chiapas, built by hand in the 7th century and abandoned a few hundred years later. The Mayan people had a wealth of knowledge: astrological, mathematics, medicine.
  • Listening to the Mayan people in San Cristóbal de Las Casas speak Tzeltal and Tzotzil, descendants of the Proto-Mayan language (“the old Maya Language”). Some Mayan people are monolingual; others can speak Spanish too.
  • Our girls attending Lusaka International Community School where the enrollment form has multiple rows for entering the languages your child can speak. I loved having them in a school where different languages, cultures, and faiths are valued.
  • I remember Steve, our guide in South Luangwa National Park in Zambia, speaking not only English fluently, but five other Zambian languages as well. (There are over 70 spoken languages in Zambia.)

In 1999 UNESCO proclaimed February 21 as International Mother Language Day. I was so glad to find out there is a day to promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by peoples of the world, to celebrate our uniqueness and many varied cultural traditions.

Here are some ideas to celebrate this wonderful day, honoring our unity in diversity:

  • Read a book written by someone from a different culture.
  • Watch a movie in another language.
  • Listen to music from another country.
  • Write a letter to a friend in a different country.
  • Learn to say “hello” in two more languages.

Join me in celebrating International Mother Language Day–our diverse languages and cultures, as well as our unity in diversity. I believe if we value our linguistic and cultural diversity–and teach our children to do the same–we may inspire understanding and tolerance and have peaceful coexistence.

About Michelle:

Michelle Hamman is the owner of, mom to two beautiful girls, and is defined by Ubuntu: the African concept of community. Between travels, she lives with her family in Holland, Michigan.