Mother tongue – how do you define yours?

Mother languageHappy International Mother Language Day! There could not be a more appropriate day than today to reflect on the term ‘mother tongue’ – but what does it really mean, especially if you speak more than one language? How should the term be defined in general and what specific meaning does it have to me? Warning: there will more questions than answers in today’s post.

There is a wonderful proverb in Swedish “Kärt barn har många namn”, the literal translation being “A beloved child has many names”, which is very true for what is generally called the ‘mother tongue’. One of the definitions is that it is ‘the language which a person has grown up speaking from early childhood’. This is generally a viable definition, but what if you for example move to another language environment or get adopted and forget the language you spoke when growing up – are you then mother-tongue-less? And what if you have learned your ‘mother tongue’ from your father, should you then call it your ‘father tongue’?

Some combine the two and call it the ‘parent language’, but this definition stumbles at the first hurdle if your parents speak different languages. Is one of your languages ‘parenter’ than the other? The same conundrum applies to ‘home language’ – in multilingual families there are many languages spoken in the home.

‘Native language’ is another definition, referring to something that has been with you since you were born. The issue is the same as for ‘mother tongue’ – it is applied to languages you have learnt as a child. If you no longer speak your childhood language, you have lost your status as a native speaker. With hard work and enough exposure, you can gain a native-level fluency in another language, but is it true that only if you relearn your early language(s) can you be called a native speaker again (or can you really?)

What about ‘dominant language’, i.e. the language you know best and (normally) use the most in your everyday life, is that what you would refer to as your ‘main language’? Well, this is also in no way a straight-forward definition for a bilingual person. Which language you use in which situation (e.g. at home, at work, in your hobbies) can determine your language competence level for that specific area of your life. This means that the dominant language can vary depending on who you are with and what you do.

Linguists prefer the term ‘L1’ for someone’s preferred language, thus avoiding any emotionally laden words. I do like the more user-friendly variant of L1: ‘first language’, as it can change over time and relates neither to when nor how a language was learned. Another term that gets mentions is ‘arterial language’ as an alternative to ‘mother tongue’ or ‘native language’ – not sure I care too much for relating your language to your arteries … although some of my languages undeniably are more “in my blood” than others.

So what about myself? If someone asks me what my ‘mother tongue’ is, I answer “Swedish. But the answer is not as clear-cut as it may seem: it is not the Swedish spoken in Sweden, it’s Finland-Swedish. My mother was a Finnish-speaker, so Finnish was (and is) definitely one of my first languages and was for a long time my emotionally closest language. I grew up bilingual, learning a Finland-Swedish dialect from my father and grandmother. The dialect is probably what I would call my ‘arterial language’, it is in my blood; so much so that although I haven’t lived in the area where the dialect is spoken, or used it in my day to day life, for more than thirty years, it is very close to my heart. (I also occasionally write blog posts in my dialect.) For a few years during my studies and subsequent teaching at university, German was on a par with my other first languages. Now, living in England and my daughters having flown the nest, Swedish is no longer the ‘dominant language’. I write my blog and book in English and my husband and I speak it together, so English has become an additional emotional first language for me. So there you have it. I embrace all my languages and feel extremely blessed to have them in my life.

Are you bilingual? Which is your first language / mother tongue / native language / L1 / … and how do you determine it? Do you have more than one?

May the peace and power be with you.


Read what other bloggers have written about the topic:

Ute Limacher-Riebold also reflects on the different definitions in her post “Mothertongue, first language, native language or dominant language?”

Annika Bourgogne tells her bilingual story in “My Mother’s Tongues”

Stephen Greene, from Head of the Heard, writes about how his son is being raised to become bilingual in “Father Tongue”

© Rita Rosenback 2014

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22 replies

  1. Thank you for mentioning my post, Rita. I noticed that many people do have a language “close to their heart”. It doesn’t have to be one of their dominant languages, it usually is the one they feel more comfortable with. The one they just cherish the most. I completely understand your way of embracing all the languages you speak. For me, my “home” are my languages 😉

  2. For us the dominant language spoken in the house is English as most of the stuff we read/ see is in English however we do speak Cantonese as it’s hb “father tongue” and mandarin as it is another language which the kids have to learn in school as it is compulsory to learn 2 languages here in Singapore. There are smattering of Korean and Japanese too as we normally listen to Korean or Japanese music and watched lots of Korean Dramas 🙂

  3. I’ve never experienced this problem, because I have a clearly defined mother language (which is a language that I don’t even like that much) but I imagine how confusing can become to know that you spoke fluently a language when you were a child and now other languages have taken its place. But I suppose that you have maintain your L1, 🙂 that’s something that a lot of young immigrants choose not to do once that they live in another country.

    • Thank you for sharing your insight, Emanuel. It is true that many immigrant children and youngsters end up giving up on their home country language. On one hand it can be understandable as they want to “fit in” and be just like all their peers. Parents have a great responsibility in showing pride and making an effort to keep the home country language alive.

  4. I think it should be your mother or father’s tongue(or more interestingly, mother or father’s mother tongue). Parents should pass down their mother tongue to next generation in order to protect the language(s). The importance of the definition of mother tongue varies from country to country. In China, the government is trying to wipe out all other languages rather than Mandarin. They even promote to the kids that Mandarin is the “First Mother Language”(yeah, ridiculous). They also started forcing the kindergartens and schools to teach in Mandarin several years ago. And Mandarin speakers won’t learn other languages even they live in a non-Mandarin speaking city in China. But they like to work and live in non-Mandarin speaking cities, so the local people will be forced to speak Mandarin to them. Many native kids are not able to speak their mother tongue(such as Cantonese) now.
    Thus, the definition of the Mother Tongue is important for the survival of languages in China. So we opt to take the definition that helps our language survive till the language policy becomes favorable to us.

    My mother tongue is Cantonese. And I have no difficulties in listening or speaking Mandarin. And a little bit of English and Japanese.

    • Thank you so much for this insight into the situation in China. I absolutely agree with you that the importance of the definition varies from one country to another and is definitely more significant in areas where you have to defend your own mother tongue. As always, the role of the parents is crucial in making sure that the language is passed on from one generation to the next. I admire your language skills!

  5. None of the terms mentioned will ever work as they are all based on a monolingual paradigm with language seen as pure, bounded ‘thing’, and we all know that this is not how the multilingual reality looks like. Pozdrowienia, terveisiä!

    • Interesting point you make, Magda. For the purpose of discussion and research I think we will however have to choose a term that suits the specific context. For us bilinguals it is, as you say, not as clear-cut as it is for monolinguals.

  6. Yes, I agree with you, of course we need words/ terms to study and discuss concepts and phenomena and for the lack of betters ones we use those we have at hand that seem most suitable for a particular context. My point is that the way we talk about things constructs what we think and how we act (we meaning individuals, groups but perhaps more importantly also institutions) and has very often very concrete material effects, for example the term “mother tongue” implicitly indicates that the person can only have one (just like you can have only one biological mother), hence people are often ‘forced’ to choose one or another language as their mother tongue (for example for bureaucratic/ administrative purposes) which can have implications for example for the educational opportunities in future. From my own experience: the extract from population register of my son (born in Finland, Finnish father, Polish mother), used to register him in Poland states that his “äidinkieli” (mother tongue in Finnish) is Finnish, fair enough: it is, SIMULTANEOUSLY WITH Polish, BUT NO ONE EVER ASKED US ABOUT IT, it was an assumption made on the basis of his surname and place of birth (not to mention that directly interpreted term mother tongue in this case makes no sense), and if this information stays in official registers, he won’t be entitled to language lessons which municipality has to organize for school age children whose mother tongue is not Finnish. And these are the material effects I mentioned above.

    • This is very true. I had the same dilemma when registering my daughters at school here in the UK. Luckily enough I was able to squeeze in more than one language in the form and then explain it to the school, which they were ok with. Interesting that you were never asked about the mother tongue – we registered our girls as Swedish-speakers when they were born in Finland, and the question was asked. Would it have been possible for you to put down Polish, or are the options only Finnish or Swedish? I think you can also change the language registered at birth, maybe you could ask about this if it affects your chances of getting support for your son.

  7. Good information here. May I reblog this post? I’m writing my own blog in Japanese and English, trying to figure out which is my dominant language. I’m raising my quarter Vietnamese (no Vietnamese speaker in the house), quarter (Irish/British) American, half Japanese children in Singapore while observing how their language skills develop.

    • Thank you – delighted you liked my post! Please feel free to reblog and link back 🙂
      With regards to the ‘dominant language’, you’ll probably find that you feel more comfortable with Japanese in certain areas and with English in others. Someone once said that you choose your “real mother tongue” (whatever that phrase may mean) to do quick mental maths. Let’s say someone throws you a bunch of matchsticks and you have to quickly count them in your head. The language you choose is supposedly your mother tongue. Not too sure about that, but it’s an interesting experiment.

      • Thank you! As I write in both languages, I’m familiarizing myself with the concept of having dominant language in different situations. The matchstick toss is an interesting experiment. I learned basic arithmetic in Japanese, but studied higher level math in English…so not sure if that would work : )

  8. Reblogged this on Duel Languages and commented:
    Interesting breakdown of different terminologies used to describe your comfort level with multiple languages.

  9. Hi Rita, this post was powerful. Thank you.
    The language of your hearth is not something I experienced myself as I grew up monolingual and not for my oldest child who always shown a situation orientated preference or a mood orientated preference. But the story was different for my daughter: she started a bilingual program (English and Turkish) in a school and she wasn’t happy, but moreover she had a lot of difficulties in learning, so much that we refer to a specialist to exclude dyslexia. For second grade we moved her to the Italian school and she blossomed, she started to read fluently in all her three languages, be engaged with classes etc. My daughter‘s hearth language is definitely Italian and it was the key to make her succeed her academically. Now the problem seems to be overcome as we are in Sweden now, and she is doing very well in the International School she is attending. Though I can see that her favored language is still Italian, when I shared it informally with prof. Genesee, he suggested me that it could be because I were my daughter ´s role model (flattering and scaring) 🙂

    • Thank you, Annalia, for your wonderful comments and for sharing your family’s story. I am sorry you had to go through the dyslexia worry – it is so sad that bilingual children still get diagnosed as having language development difficulties of varying kinds, when the issue more often than not lies in incorrect testing methods and insufficient support. How great that your daughter can now attend a school where she can thrive! And how lucky your children are to have you as their mother – I do agree with the professor, it is so important for children to have great role models 🙂


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