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What is a “Mother Tongue”?

Posted by on March 15, 2014

The phrase “Mother Tongue” has always intrigued me.  Up until a few years ago I didn’t even think very much of it.  To me it had always meant a person’s first language, period, no more and no less.  There didn’t seem to be anything more interesting to know or even learn about the expression.  However, having recently observed how children pick up languages and by whom, I came around to an altogether different understanding of the phrase, one that called my own assumptions into question.

Today, because we live in an increasingly “globalised” world, our country of birth may not be our country of death or even the place where we ever live again after we are born.  We are comfortable with the notion of moving many times over the course of our lives, whether between cities or amongst countries.  We learn different languages, marry into different cultures and often have two, three or more different careers over the course of our lives.  We no longer necessarily identify ourselves with one country or culture but rather think of ourselves as part of the larger world, “a citizen of the world”.   All of this is already “normal” and increasingly so with every new generation.

So, in the midst of all this variety in life, what do we identify with when we question who we are or, indeed, when somebody else questions who we are?  How do we answer?  What do we say?  Whatever we communicate, we do it through language.  If we happen to speak only one language, then we probably have a fairly coherent sense of self, applying more weight to other characteristics about ourselves when we attempt to answer such questions.  However, if we speak two or more languages then the languages themselves are often a greater or equal weight to the other characteristics which make up the rest of our personality and identity.  And between the languages or amongst them, there always exists a primary one, often termed a person’s “mother tongue”.

A book entitled, "Mother Tongue" by Bill Bryson from 2008.

A book entitled, “Mother Tongue” by Bill Bryson from 2008.

Babies and small children tend to spend the majority of their time with the mother, at least this has historically been the case, therefore any knowledge of words, communication and language had a propensity to be formed by the mother, hence the phrase “mother tongue”.  Despite where the child was born or reared, the mother was the central and significant role model and the primary educator when it came to early awareness and knowledge of the world around the child.  Today, fathers play an increasing role in child-rearing, as do caretakers such as nannies, grandparents or older siblings.  Regardless of whether the mother today continues to play the primary role in a child’s early life however, the phrase “mother tongue” has stuck.  In today’s world, at some point during our lives and especially if we speak more than one language, we will be asked, “What is your ‘mother tongue’?”  Hardly anybody asks, “What is your ‘first language’?”, or even “Which country are you a ‘native speaker’ of?”  Yet we all use these phrases interchangeably.  But are they interchangeable?

The differences between the phrases “mother tongue”, “first language” and “native speaker” are at first insignificant because most of us tend to use the phrases to mean the same thing.  However, after some research, the phrase “mother tongue” comes from “…the assumption that the linguistic skills of a child are honed by the mother and therefore the language spoken by the mother would be the primary language that the child would learn”.  There exists a peppering of other attempts of a definition as well, including “the language one learned first…identifies with…knows best…”.

Separately, the phrase “first language” is thought to mean “…a part of [a child’s] personal, social and cultural identity”.  It is also often thought to mean the language a child has learned from birth or the one they are most comfortable speaking or thinking in and therefore their basis for sociolinguistic identity.

Still different, the phrase “native speaker” is defined by a variety of guidelines according to an article entitled,  “The Native Speaker: An Achievable Model?” including “the individual acquired the language in early childhood…has intuitive knowledge of the language…does not have a foreign accent”.  Here more than in the other descriptions, weight is placed on the intuitiveness one has about a language; inherently knowing the language by having learned its rules unconsciously through experience rather than learning all of its grammatical rules from a textbook.

Hmmm…so how does one define the primary language of a child who is born outside their mother’s own country of origin but speaks only their “mother’s tongue” until they start nursery school and then begins to speak the language of the country in which the family lives with such facility that that language ends up being their “first language” and the child grows up being considered a “native speaker” of that second country?  I still haven’t answered this question about myself.

© Kristina Tzaneff

2 Responses to What is a “Mother Tongue”?

  1. Diana Devlin

    What a thought-provoking topic! My immediate thoughts are about children who learn and speak their first language, but forget it if it is not followed up in later life. Also about nannies: Joyce Grenfell wrote about the typical sayings imbibed by middle-class and upper class children whose main source of language was their nanny rather than their mother.

  2. Susie Gutch

    I always think how lucky children are who learn more than one language early in life, apparently effortlessly – because for young children it’s fun, and all learned aurally without having to worry about writing.It becomes much more difficult when having to learn to read and write , especially if a different ‘alphabet’ or script is involved , such as in Chinese, Japanese or Arabic. Of course, it’s even harder to learn a different language in later life. How lucky we are in the UK, when so many foreigners learn English. It makes us lazy over learning languages, and the teaching of languages in schools has suffered greatly as a result of recent education policies. Learning languages trains the mind, as well as opening up the wonders of discovering different cultures, the possibility of living and working abroad, and a better understanding of the world. It would be interesting to hear about your own experience of learning different languages, and working in different countries, and how your emigre ancestors tackled the problem when they moved to the USA.

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