Being multilingual

Mothertongue, first language, native language or dominant language?


In the strictest sense, we all have a mother tongue as we all have only one (biological) mother. – But does this mean that the language our mother talked to us is automatically our mother tongue?

What about this friend I had in school, who was adopted when she was 2 and grew up in a Dutch family: would her mother tongue be Swahili because her mum was talking Swahili to her or would it be Dutch, because this was the language the mother who adopted her talked to her?

Usually, mother tongue – or father tongue to be politically correct! –  defines the first language we were exposed to, chronologically speaking, our L1, the first language we understand, speak, the one we grew up with or that our parents (or caregivers) speak with us. And usually people tend to speak this language for a long time.

If we want to define the first language we speak, learn and feel comfortable with, the term first language may seem more appropriate. This first language doesn’t have to be one. In bilingual families it can be two or three: the important aspect to define a language as first language is, that the child uses it on a regular basis, preferably every day from the very beginning. Linguists suggested a few years ago that an exposure of at least 20% of the daily time would be optimal for a child to become (almost) equally proficient in the family languages (but this has changed already and the duration of exposure is not the most important factor of becoming a bilingual!).

If there are more than one first languages in a family, we can also use the term of family languages: these would be for example the language a child talks with the mother, another one with the father, a third one with a caregiver (i.e. at daycare, school etc.), maybe a next one with extended family or locals, a fourth one with friends… Simultaneous bilinguals or multilinguals are exposed to more than one (or two) languages since day one. Successive bilinguals or multilinguals, are those who add other languages after having acquired the first language(s).

Using a term like family languages works if the language situation within the family is stable. And it would also work for extended family would share these languages – But we all know that in multilingual families, the languages we speak at home can vary and the situation can shift. Situations change, we move abroad, we immerse into other cultures and languages and within a bilingual family this can be a reason for preferring one language to another – even if only for a certain period of time.
I personally prefer and use the term of home languages when I talk about the languages a family speaks at home, as there can be other people involved: caregivers, nannies, babysitters etc. can speak another language to my child on a daily/weekly basis and this language would become one of the most important languages for my child.

My languages

Let’s consider my personal language situation: my parents only spoke German with me and my sister, but we were exposed to Italian since day one. We didn’t “learn” it in the conventional, academical way, so Italian counts as our second-mother-tongue or one of our first languages. – Usually, when people ask me which is my mother tongue (or mother language) I answer German and Italian. Both languages are still equally dominant and valuable for me.

If I analyze the different phases in my life, there were phases where Italian or French or German were dominant languages. In one phase (of almost 6 years) I would mainly speak Italian and French (and study Old-French and Old-Provençal, which felt like “living” in this time and period!). During that period I really had difficulties communicating in German and couldn’t form a complete sentence in German.

Only when this linguistic situation changed and I focused more on German and Italian, my German became more dominant for a short period.

English is the fourth language I’ve learned and I didn’t use it very often from age 20 to 34. I did re-activate and improve it when we moved to the Netherlands and our children started attending an English school. At the same time I also improved my Dutch.

In the last 11 years, English and Dutch became the most dominant languages, with German being our family language.

Therefore, my first languages are now German, English and Dutch, with occasionally Italian (the language that still feels like the closest to my heart!), French and Swissgerman (and adding Spanish to the picture which I have a great passive knowledge in but where I’m working on the verbal fluency).

What are my children’s first languages?

From a chronological point of view, Italian and Swiss-German are the “first languages” for all of my children, but only for their first years, because we decided at some point to only speak German with them – while still reading and singing with them in Swiss-German and Italian –, and this changed again when they started attending the Dutch daycare and then an English school.

Today – I should better say “at the moment”…– they consider German, English and Dutch as their main languages, i.e. the ones they are most fluent in. These are their most dominant languages. They don’t feel that confident in Swiss-German or Italian at the moment, but I know by my own experience that this can change if the linguistic situation changes again or if they just decide to talk them more often.

For multilingual children, the linguistic situation within the family and social context changes constantly, and if this happens in their early years, the concept of “first language” changes too, it only refers to the first language acquired, so in strictly chronological terms.

The first language or mother tongue plays an important role in sociolinguistics, as it is the basis for people’s sociolinguistic identity. Terms like native language or mother tongue refer to an ethnic group rather than to the first language. This all confuses families and teachers as, usually, one needs to indicate the “mother tongue” of the children when signing them up for a daycare or school. This is why I always recommend to indicate also the languages that our children are most dominant in at the moment… 

Native speakers are considered to be “authority on their given language due to their natural acquisition process regarding the language, versus having learned the language later in life”.

By concentrating on the natural acquisition process, my native languages would be German, Italian, Swiss-German and Dutch because I did acquire them naturally, i.e. without “studying” them. I did not “learn” them at school, I did imitate speakers and copy sentences. I learnt how to read and write them partly at school – German and Italian.

The fact that someone is a “native” speaker because he or she acquired this language at an early stage, doesn’t really make sense to me. We all need to nurture our languages, learn the different meanings of words, form longer sentences, find out what register to use in different settings, which all takes many years!

Fact is that we are perfectly able to acquire a language in a “natural” way also in a later stage of our life. And if a language we acquired or learnt later in life becomes our most dominant language, i.e. the one we speak most, write in and read, our “first language” or “mother tongue” can become a secondary language and sometimes even be lost… (cfr. language attrition).

In his lecture “English and Welsh” in 1955, J.R.R. Tolkien distinguishes the “native tongue” from the “cradle tongue”. The cradle tongue being the language we learn during early childhood and the native tongue “may be different, possibly determined by an inherited linguistic taste, and may later in life be discovered by a strong emotional affinity to a specific dialect (Tolkien confessed to such an affinity to the Middle English of the West Midlands in particular)” (cfr. pdf of “English and Welsh” by J.R.R. Tolkien)

We each have our own personal linguistic potential: we each have a native language. But that is not the language that we speak, our cradle-tongue, the first-learned. Linguistically we all wear ready-made clothes, and our native language comes seldom to expression, save perhaps by pulling at the ready-made till it sits a little easier. But though it may be buried, it is never wholly extinguished, and contact with other languages may stir it deeply.

My chief point here is to emphasize the difference between the first-learned language, the language of custom, and an individual’s native language, his inherent linguistic predilections: not to deny that he will share many of these with others of his community. He will share them, no doubt, in proportion as he shares other elements in his make-up. (cfr. “English and Welsh” by J.R.R. Tolkien, p.18)

There is so much to say (and write) about this topic! One could add the term of heritage language, which is often misunderstood as a synonym of mother language/tongue… But I’ll stop here.

The predilection of a language is more important than the chronological place it has in our language acquisition history. (Ute)

For me, personally, the language I prefer speaking and that is closest to my heart and I’m more spontaneous in, is not the language my parents talked to me during the first period of my life. What about you? Do you (still) prefer speaking the first language you learnt, or is another language more important for you right now?

If you are interested in this topic and would like to know more about it:

I hold workshops on bilingualism and parenting the bilingual child and consult parents, caregivers and teachers about it.

About the origin of the term mother tongue

“The origin of the term mother tongue harks back to the notion that 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.” However, this type of culture-specific notion is a misnomer. The term was used by Catholic monks to designate a particular language they used, instead of Latin, when they are “speaking from the pulpit”.That is, the “holy mother of the Church” introduced this term and colonies inherited it from the Christianity as a part of their colonial legacy, thanks to the effort made by foreign missionaries in the transitional period of switching over from 18th-century Mercantile Capitalism to 19th-century Industrial Capitalism in India.” (cfr. wikipedia)

30 replies »

  1. Thought provoking, as usual 🙂 My native language is German, but my dominant one is English. I live in Spain now, so Spanish could, one day, become dominant, but I’m a far way off from integrating it into my neural cortex to a sufficient degree 😉

    However, I also find that different languages are dominant depending on the situation/context. I think you’ve touched on that.

    • Ha, ladyofthecakes: I love the way you integrate the neural cortex in all this 😉 Yes, every situation/context requires adaptation which involves, in many situations, also the language choice. If we live in a highly international context and switch among several languages every day, we will have more dominant languages. Presonally, this is the situation I prefer and like the most. When I spend several days talking one language only, I feel like if part of my brain is asleep. I then tend to just talk the another languages with my family. Weird…, I know. – I guess I would not be very happy in an exclusively monolingual context/society. – Thanks for your comment! 🙂

      • I’m the same, I think. In fact, this is one of the reasons why I’ve decided to move to Madrid within the next few months. Small-town Spain is just so “mono” on so many levels 😉

  2. I really like the sort of flexibility that you advocate here when it comes to categorising languages. I really seems to fit with the ways in which things can’t always be easily separated out into neat categories.

    • Thank you! Yes, I think categories, thinking in boxes etc. are not my way of thinking and perceiving the world. If we consider our lives in separate stages, we can ‘fit into categories’ but only for a short period. We all change constantly and often also our use of the languages does. We move or travel and use other languages, learn new ones or have to use other ones for our work, with new friends etc. We deactivate and reactivate constantly: the languages we know, the skills we have etc.

  3. Very thought-provoking indeed. I have often wondered myself how to class my languages. My first language is English, but I am just as fluent and confident in Greek, and although it is a bit rusty now, I was also fluent in Italian, and I am sure it would once again become dominant should the situation arise. Then there is Welsh, always close to my heart. My children are bilingual in English and Greek and have a smattering of Welsh. I have often thought about how this can so easily change – currently Greek is their dominant language, but when they spent time in the UK, the focus shifted. Which is their native language? Both, of course.

    • Thank you for your comment, Alex. We can always re-activate a language we were, let’s say, proficient in. I like the way you describe your languages. You also have a language that is “close to your heart”. If I would ask my children which is the language they consider closest to their heart, I would probably get three different answers. It doesn’t matter to me, really. I think this is very personal and like everyone has a favourite colour (or two, or three…) we can have our favourite language. The shifting becomes very natural and is not conscious in multilinguals. Especially when they use the languages on a regular basis. It’s so fascinating to observe all this in our children, right? Thanks for stopping by and for sharing your experience about this topic.

      • My pleasure to share! I had planned to add so many comments to your article/post! I couldn’t agree more with the perception/misperception of ‘mother tongue’-‘first tongue’. My 3 children speak a mix of my mother tongue [Portuguese] and my husband’s mother tongue [English]. The little 3 yr old, due to spending a good chunck of the day with her Bolivian nanny, speaks mostly Spanish, although understands English and Portuguese… but definitely, her “first language” is not her mother’s nor her father’s – it’s the one she receives from her caretaker… And my two oldest kids, aged 8 and 6, because of the American School, their peers and friends, show preference for English – again, is that their ‘mother tongue’? Not really, but clearly, it’s their “first language”, the one closer to their hearts, I’d say… maybe it’ll change with time, we’ll see… 🙂 Thank you so much for sharing your post – I really appreciated reading it, and still plan on writing something along with your thoughts.. if I don’t get lazy again, or run out of energy at the end of the day! 🙂

  4. Working as a teacher in an International school I see children who have learned more languages than I can ever dream of. Many children have lived in 2-5 countries, some only visiting their passport holding country on holidays; never living there. Their mother tongue sometimes gets confused. With parents that may be from 2 differnt countries they may share English as a common language. Not either parent may consider that their first. I know other children who prefer the language of the country they were born in since caregivers spoke it to them as they cared for them as parents travelled or were off to work. I guess it is part of the third culture kids… a whole different world that I never thought about until I came to work internationally.

    • Yes, living and working in an international environment makes us realize the huge variety of combinations: in many families, talking 2 and more languages at home is normal and the children often talk another language at school and, again, this language often differs from the local one. And of course, many caregivers talk another language too, which is very enriching.
      For many internationally living families who are not English mothertongue, this is very normal. And yes, it is very common among TCKs.

      • My first year I was blown away with kids speaking in English and Chinese in classes then turning to a friend and talking a third or fouth language. I felt like I was in the Twlight Zone. Now it is normal and I am sure I will miss it when we leave here.

  5. My mother tongue is Javanese, my second one is Bahasa Indonesia…while English is the first foreign language I learn and speak (besides some others)…Sometimes I write in French and yeach many language expositions.

    I am still learning and proud being (semi) polyglot in my own. Hehehehe…

    • It’s fascinating how we learn and acquire other languages and add more and more during our journey. I’m sure your dominant languages did change over the years, depending on where you lived, studied or worked. I’m always fascinated by the constant change. We’re often making plans about which language is important for us, but then life makes us change and we realize that like with everything else, we can be flexible also when it comes to the languages we know. I would like to know more about when or how you did acquire or learn those languages and which are or were more important (and why). Sorry, I’m very curious, I know 😉

      • Hehehehehe…that’s funny thing. I learned English just when I was in Junior high school, and up to know still learning on it. Hmmmm around 1989 and I learned French by myself during my high school and university…nothing but for fun. I also learn German at school, but I have forgotten most of words I learnt then hahahaha…Anyway, actually the first foreign language I learn is Arabic. I got it when I was still in grade 2 (1984) and sometimes I still remember some words because many Indonesian languages words contain Arabic loanwords too.
        And the rests, I learn by media…:D
        That’s it..if not enough, just ask me again 😀

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