Definition and Examples of Native Languages

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Illustration of people communicating
Malte Mueller/Getty Images

In most cases, the term native language refers to the language that a person acquires in early childhood because it is spoken in the family and/or it is the language of the region where the child lives. Also known as a mother tongue, first language, or arterial language.

A person who has more than one native language is regarded as bilingual or multilingual.

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

As David Crystal has observed, the term native language (like native speaker) "has become a sensitive one in those parts of the world where native has developed demeaning connotations" (Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics). The term is avoided by some specialists in World English and New Englishes.

Examples and Observations

"[Leonard] Bloomfield (1933) defines a native language as one learned on one's mother's knee, and claims that no one is perfectly sure in a language that is acquired later. 'The first language a human being learns to speak is his native language; he is a native speaker of this language' (1933: 43). This definition equates a native speaker with a mother tongue speaker. Bloomfield's definition also assumes that age is the critical factor in language learning and that native speakers provide the best models, although he does say that, in rare instances, it is possible for a foreigner to speak as well as a native. . . .
"The assumptions behind all these terms are that a person will speak the language they learn first better than languages they learn later, and that a person who learns a language later cannot speak it as well as a person who has learned the language as their first language. But it is clearly not necessarily true that the language a person learns first is the one they will always be best at . . .."
(Andy Kirkpatrick, World Englishes: Implications for International Communication and English Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press, 2007)​

Native Language Acquisition

"A native language is generally the first one a child is exposed to. Some early studies referred to the process of learning one's first or native language as First Language Acquisition or FLA, but because many, perhaps most, children in the world are exposed to more than one language almost from birth, a child may have more than one native language. As a consequence, specialists now prefer the term native language acquisition (NLA); it is more accurate and includes all sorts of childhood situations."
(Fredric Field, Bilingualism in the USA: The Case of the Chicano-Latino Community. John Benjamins, 2011)

Language Acquisition and Language Change

"Our native language is like a second skin, so much a part of us we resist the idea that it is constantly changing, constantly being renewed. Though we know intellectually that the English we speak today and the English of Shakespeare's time are very different, we tend to think of them as the same--static rather than dynamic."
(Casey Miller and Kate Swift, The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, 2nd ed. iUniverse, 2000)

"Languages change because they are used by human beings, not machines. Human beings share common physiological and cognitive characteristics, but members of a speech community differ slightly in their knowledge and use of their shared language. Speakers of different regions, social classes, and generations use language differently in different situations (register variation). As children acquire their native language, they are exposed to this synchronic variation within their language. For example, speakers of any generation use more and less formal language depending on the situation. Parents (and other adults) tend to use more informal language to children. Children may acquire some informal features of the language in preference to their formal alternatives, and incremental changes in the language (tending toward greater informality) accumulate over generations. (This may help explain why each generation seems to feel that following generations are ruder and less eloquent, and are corrupting the language!) When a later generation acquires an innovation in the language introduced by a previous generation, the language changes."
(Shaligram Shukla and Jeff Connor-Linton, "Language Change." An Introduction to Language And Linguistics, ed. by Ralph W. Fasold and Jeff Connor-Linton. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Margaret Cho on Her Native Language

"It was hard for me to do the show [All-American Girl] because a lot of people didn't even understand the concept of Asian-American. I was on a morning show, and the host said, 'Awright, Margaret, we're changing over to an ABC affiliate! So why don't you tell our viewers in your native language that we're making that transition?' So I looked at the camera and said, 'Um, they're changing over to an ABC affiliate.'"
(Margaret Cho, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight. Penguin, 2006)

Joanna Czechowska on Reclaiming a Native Language

"As a child growing up in Derby [England] in the 60s I spoke Polish beautifully, thanks to my grandmother. While my mother went out to work, my grandmother, who spoke no English, looked after me, teaching me to speak her native tongue. Babcia, as we called her, dressed in black with stout brown shoes, wore her grey hair in a bun, and carried a walking stick.

"But my love affair with Polish culture began to fade when I was five--the year Babcia died.

"My sisters and I continued to go to Polish school, but the language would not return. Despite the efforts of my father, even a family trip to Poland in 1965 could not bring it back. When six years later my father died too, at just 53, our Polish connection almost ceased to exist. I left Derby and went to university in London. I never spoke Polish, never ate Polish food nor visited Poland. My childhood was gone and almost forgotten.

"Then in 2004, more than 30 years later, things changed again. A new wave of Polish immigrants had arrived and I began to hear the language of my childhood all around me--every time I got on a bus. I saw Polish newspapers in the capital and Polish food for sale in the shops. The language sounded so familiar yet somehow distant--as if it were something I tried to grab but was always out of reach.

"I began to write a novel [The Black Madonna of Derby] about a fictional Polish family and, at the same time, decided to enroll at a Polish language school.

"Each week I went through half-remembered phrases, getting bogged down in the intricate grammar and impossible inflections. When my book was published, it put me back in touch with school friends who like me were second-generation Polish. And strangely, in my language classes, I still had my accent and I found words and phrases would sometimes come unbidden, long lost speech patterns making a sudden reappearance. I had found my childhood again."


Joanna Czechowska, "After My Polish Grandmother Died, I Did Not Speak Her Native Language for 40 Years." The Guardian, July 15, 2009

Margaret Cho, I Have Chosen to Stay and Fight. Penguin, 2006

Shaligram Shukla and Jeff Connor-Linton, "Language Change." An Introduction to Language And Linguistics, ed. by Ralph W. Fasold and Jeff Connor-Linton. Cambridge University Press, 2006

Casey Miller and Kate Swift, The Handbook of Nonsexist Writing, 2nd ed. iUniverse, 2000

Fredric Field, Bilingualism in the USA: The Case of the Chicano-Latino Community. John Benjamins, 2011

Andy Kirkpatrick, World Englishes: Implications for International Communication and English Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press, 2007

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Native Languages." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition and Examples of Native Languages. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Native Languages." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 3, 2023).