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The UN educational and cultural agency, UNESCO, has encouraged people everywhere to celebrate the world's diversity by supporting multilingualism at school and in everyday life: the theme for International Mother Language Day, observed on Sunday.

The focus this year is on inclusion, both in the classroom and in society.

"This is essential, because when 40 per cent of the world's inhabitants do not have access to education in the language they speak or understand best, it hinders their learning, as well as their access to heritage and cultural expressions," UNESCO chief Audrey Azoulay said in her message for the Day.

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The annual commemoration honours linguistic diversity and multilingualism, which Azoulay called "this priceless heritage of humanity."

"This year, special attention is being paid to multilingual education from early childhood, so that for children, their mother tongue is always an asset," she added.

The COVID-19 threat

International Mother Language Day is being celebrated as the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, which has widened inequalities in education. Azoulay said many of the 1.5 billion students worldwide unable to attend school at the peak of the crisis had no access to distance learning.

The pandemic is also threatening cultural diversity, as festivals and other events have been cancelled, with the impacts affecting creators and the media.

Azoulay underscored her agency's commitment to promoting multilingualism, including on the Internet. UNESCO is also the lead agency for the International Decade of Indigenous Languages, which begins next year.

Preserving a common heritage

She said the International Day, like the Decade, presents the challenge of ensuring the diversity of the world's languages is preserved as a common heritage.

"For when a language dies, a way of seeing, feeling and thinking the world disappears, and all of cultural diversity is irretrievably diminished," she said.

"On this International Day, UNESCO therefore calls for the celebration of the world in all its diversity, and support for multilingualism in everyday life."

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