The Meaning of the Term "Mother Tongue"

In 2001, Christopher Brumfit observed that "the English language no longer belongs numerically to speakers of English as a mother tongue, or first language" ( Individual Freedom in Language Teaching). ImagineGolf/Getty Images

Mother tongue is a traditional term for a person's native language—that is, a language learned from birth. Also called a first language, dominant language, home language, and native tongue (although these terms are not necessarily synonymous). 

Contemporary linguists and educators commonly use the term L1 to refer to a first or native language (the mother tongue), and the term L2 to refer to a second language or a foreign language that's being studied.

Use of the Term "Mother Tongue"

"[T]he general usage of the term 'mother tongue' . . . denotes not only the language one learns from one's mother, but also the speaker's dominant and home language, i.e. not only the first language according to the time of acquisition, but the first with regard to its importance and the speaker's ability to master its linguistic and communicative aspects. For example, if a language school advertises that all its teachers are native speakers of English, we would most likely complain if we later learned that although the teachers do have some vague childhood memories of the time when they talked to their mothers in English, they, however, grew up in some non-English speaking country and are fluent in a second language only. Similarly, in translation theory, the claim that one should translate only into one's mother tongue, is in fact a claim that one should only translate into one's first and dominant language.



"The vagueness of this term has led some researchers to claim . . . that different connotative meanings of the term 'mother tongue' vary according to the intended usage of the word and that differences in understanding the term can have far-reaching and often political consequences."
(N. Pokorn, Challenging the Traditional Axioms: Translation Into a Non-Mother Tongue.

John Benjamins, 2005)

Culture and Mother Tongue

- "It is the language community of the mother tongue, the language spoken in a region, which enables the process of enculturation, the growing of an individual into a particular system of linguistic perception of the world and participation in the centuries old history of linguistic production."
(W. Tulasiewicz and A. Adams, "What Is Mother Tongue?" Teaching the Mother Tongue in a Multilingual Europe. Continuum, 2005)

- "Cultural power can . . . backfire when the choices of those who embrace Americanness in language, accent, dress or choice of entertainment stir resentment in those who do not. Every time an Indian adopts an American accent and curbs his 'mother tongue influence,' as the call centers label it, hoping to land a job, it seems more deviant, and frustrating, to have only an Indian accent."
(Anand Giridharadas, "America Sees Little Return From 'Knockoff Power.'" The New York Times, June 4, 2010)

Myth and Ideology

"The notion of 'mother tongue' is thus a mixture of myth and ideology. The family is not necessarily the place where languages are transmitted, and sometimes we observe breaks in transmission, often translated by a change of language, with children acquiring as first language the one that dominates in the milieu.

This phenomenon . . . concerns all multilingual situations and most of the situations of migration."
(Louis Jean Calvet, Towards an Ecology of World Languages. Polity Press, 2006)

The Top 20 Mother Tongues

"The mother tongue of more than three billion people is one of twenty, which are, in order of their current predominance: Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Javanese, German, Wu Chinese, Korean, French, Telugu, Marathi, Turkish, Tamil, Vietnamese, and Urdu. English is the lingua franca of the digital age, and those who use it as a second language may outnumber its native speakers by hundreds of millions. On every continent, people are forsaking their ancestral tongues for the dominant language of their region’s majority. Assimilation confers inarguable benefits, especially as Internet use proliferates and rural youth gravitate to cities.

But the loss of languages passed down for millennia, along with their unique arts and cosmologies, may have consequences that won’t be understood until it is too late to reverse them."
(Judith Thurman, "A Loss for Words." The New Yorker, March 30, 2015)

The Lighter Side of the Mother Tongue

Gib's friend: Forget her, I hear she only likes intellectuals.
Gib: So? I'm intellectual and stuff.
Gib's friend: You're flunking English. That's your mother tongue, and stuff.
(The Sure Thing, 1985)