If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

– Nelson Mandela

Happy International Mother Language Day!

We use language every day to communicate with each other, but our mother language is something that connects us with our culture. Let’s embrace and speak our mother languages with pride.

In 1999, UNESCO declared 21 February as International Mother Language Day to promote linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. The day commemorates the death of several members of the Bengali Language Movement who died during a demonstration for the recognition of their mother language as an official language in Bangladesh.

Today, there are 7 139 known spoken languages in the world. Of these, 3 018 are classified as endangered (with less than 1 000 speakers).

South Africa has 36 established languages. Of these, 20 are indigenous, 11 are non-indigenous and 5 are extinct. Furthermore, 12 are institutional, 8 are developing, 3 are vigorous, 1 is in trouble, and 7 are dying. Also listed are 16 unestablished languages.

Number of speakers per official language in South Africa and worldwide:

South Africa               Worldwide

Afrikaans                   17 160 000                  17 631 780

English                       15 890 000                  1 348 145 850

Ndebele                      2 490 000                    –

Setswana                   11 770 000                  –

Sesotho                      11 750 000                  –

Swati                           3 700 000                    –

Sepedi                         13 720 000                  13 731 000

Tsonga                        5 680 000                    10 003 500

Venda                          2 910 000                    3 001 400

Xhosa                          19 150 000                  19 183 300

Zulu                              27 300 000                  27 770 100

Did you know?

The 10 most spoken languages in the world are:

English                                    1 348 million

Mandarin Chinese                 1 120 million

Hindi                                        600 million

Spanish                                   543 million

Standard Arabic                     274 million

Bengali                                    268 million

French                                     267 million

Russian                                   258 million

Portuguese                             258 million

Urdu                                         230 million


Greetings from our multilingual PEG members!

Hallo! My naam is Coen en ek woon in Pretoria, Suid Afrika. My moedertaal is Afrikaans.
(Thank you also to: Marianne, Cliff, Magda, Laetitia, Carin)

Hallo! Mijn naam is Reinoud. I woon in Sandton, Zuid-Afrika. Mijn moedertaal is Nederlands.

Hi! My name is Babara Basel and I currently live in Cape Town, South Africa. My mother language is English.
(Thank you also to: Kelly-May)

Hallo! Ich heiße Karin und ich wohne zur Zeit in Johannesburg, Südafrika. Meine Muttersprache ist Deutsch.
(Thank you also to: Barbara and Paul)

Molweni! Igama lam ngu Andisile Best kwaye ndihlala eMonti, eMzantsi Africa. Ulwimi lwam lwenkobe sisiXhosa.

Ola! Meu nome é Maria e moro em Joanesburgo, África do Sul. A minha lingua materna e Português.

Dumelang; ke nna Leloba Molema. Ke nna mono Gaborone, mo Botswana. Puo ya gaetsho ke Setswana.

Swiss German
Salü, i bi d’Caroline u i läbe i Johannesburg, Südafrika. Myni Muetersproch isch Schwyzerdütsch.

You can find out more about International Mother Language Day at https://www.un.org/en/observances/mother-language-day and https://en.unesco.org/commemorations/motherlanguageday.

The statistics quoted are taken from Ethnologue (https://www.ethnologue.com/).

Photo Credits: Image by Alexis Grewan.

The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of PEG.

About PEG

The Professional Editors’ Guild (PEG) is a non-profit company (NPC) in South Africa. Since moving to online activities in March 2020, PEG has been able to offer members across South Africa, and internationally, access to an extensive online webinar programme. Continuing professional development remains a key offering and the first PEG Accreditation Test was administered in August 2020 to benchmark excellence in the field of editing.