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.
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)