John Heaney said it was comfortable for him to grow up in the United States and only have to learn a single language.
It wasn't until he traveled that he learned that people in much of the rest of the world can understand numerous tongues.
"What do you call someone who speaks five languages? Multilingual," he told the crowd of about 150 people gathered in Battelle Auditorium. "What do you call a person who speaks one language? American."
Heaney's speech was part of International Mother Language Day, sponsored by the Three Rivers Folklife Society. Organizers said it's an opportunity to preserve languages and bring people together.
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International Mother Language Day was established by UNESCO in 1999 to be observed Feb. 21. It commemorates the day in 1952 that a group of students was killed in Bangladesh while demonstrating for recognition of the Bengali language by the government ruling their country from Pakistan.
Sandip Dasverma, one of Sunday's organizers who is also Bengali, said that while the day remembers the ultimate victory of those students to have their language preserved, it's also a reminder that many languages are fading away.
"The diversity of cultures is dying out," he said.
Sunday's celebration featured presentations about 15 languages, from Chinese and Sinhala to Hebrew and Spanish. Speakers talked about where their languages came from and how they are sometimes similar to others. Many wore traditional dress and several performed dances from their culture.
Richland resident John Cox, a member of the Umpqua tribe from southern Oregon, said his native language of Tekalma is extinct but tribal elders are trying to resurrect it from written records.
"Indigenous people need to be represented in these events," he said.
Heaney and his wife took part in the Chinese presentation. He said his grasp of the language is still terrible, though he is able to read about 1,000 characters. He was glad the event was held this year and hopes it becomes a more regular celebration, given its role of preserving languages while helping others understand cultures that aren't their own.
"You need to respect their language as much as you respect their culture," he said.
-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; email@example.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver