A first language (also mother tongue, native
language, arterial language, or L1)
is the language a human being learns from birth.
A person's first language is a basis for sociolinguistic
The usage of these terms is far from standardized, however.
Sometimes the term first language is used for
the language that the speaker speaks best (his second
language then being the language he speaks less well
than his first language, etc).
Sometimes the terms first language, second
language and third language are used to indicate
various levels of skill in a language, so that it can
be said that a person knows more than one language at
first or second language level.
Sometimes the term native language is used to
indicate a language that a person is as proficient in
as a native inhabitant of that language's base country,
or as proficient as the average person who speaks no other
language but that language.
Sometimes the term mother tongue or mother
language is used for the language that a person learnt
at home (usually from his parents). Children growing up
in bilingual homes can according to this definition have
more than one mother tongue.
In the context of population censuses conducted on the
Canadian population, Statistics
Canada defines mother tongue as "the first
language learned at home in childhood and still understood
by the individual at the time of the census."
regardless of their definitions. It is quite possible
that the first language learned is no longer a speaker's
dominant language. Young immigrant children, whose families
have moved to a new linguistic environment may lose, in
part or in totality, the language they first acquired
Good skills in one's native languages are essential for
further learning, as a native language is thought to be
a base of thinking, however, this is highly controversial.
Incomplete first language skills often make learning other
languages difficult. Native language has therefore a central
role in education.
| International Mother Language Day Monument in Sydney,
Australia, unveiling ceremony, 19 February 2006
The term "mother tongue" should not be interpreted to
mean that it is the language of one's mother. In some
paternal societies, the wife moves in with the husband
and thus may have a different first language, or dialect,
than the local language of the husband. Yet their children
usually only speak their local language. Only a few will
learn to speak their mothers' languages like natives.
in this context probably originated from
the definition of mother as source
, or origin
as in mother-country
In some countries such as Kenya
"mother tongue" is used to indicate the language of one's
group (ethnic tongue), in both common and journalistic
parlance (e.g. 'I have no apologies for not learning my
rather than one's first language. A similar usage of the
term was employed in Ireland
in the early-to-mid twentieth century, with Irish
being referred to as the "mother tongue" of all Irish
people, even of those whose first language was English.
Also in Singapore,
"mother tongue" refers to the language of one's ethnic
group regardless of actual proficiency, while the
"first language" refers to the English language, which
is the lingua
franca for most post-independence Singaporeans due
to its use as the language of instruction in government
schools and as a working language despite it not being
a native tongue for most Singaporeans.
R. R. Tolkien in his 1955 lecture English
and Welsh distinguishes the "native tongue" from
the "cradle tongue", the latter being the language one
happens to learn during early childhood, while one's true
"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
personally confessed to such an affinity to the Middle
English of the West
Midlands in particular).
February has been proclaimed the International
Mother Language Day by UNESCO on 17
One can have two or more native languages, thus being
a native bilingual
or indeed multilingual.
The order in which these languages are learned is not
necessarily the order of proficiency. For instance, a
couple might have a daughter who learned French first,
but if she were to grow up in an English speaking country,
she would likely be proficient in English.
The Brazilian linguist Cleo
Altenhofen considers the denomination "mother tongue"
in its general usage to be imprecise and subject to various
interpretations that are biased linguistically, especially
with respect to bilingual children from ethnic minority
groups. He cites his own experience as a bilingual speaker
language and Riograndenser
Hunsruckisch, a German-rooted language brought to
Brazil by the first German immigrants. In his case,
like that of many children whose home
language differs from the language of the environment
(the 'official' language), it is debatable which language
is his 'mother tongue'. Many scholars gave definitions
of 'mother tongue' through the years based on common usage,
the emotional relation of the speaker towards the language,
and even its dominance in relation to the environment.
However, all of these criteria lack precision.
- Definition based on origin: the language(s) one learned
first (the language(s) in which one has established
the first long-lasting verbal contacts).
- Definition based on internal identification: the language(s)
one identifies with/as a native speaker of;
- Definition based on external identification: the language(s)
one is identified with/as a native speaker of, by others.
- Definition based on competence: the language(s) one
- Definition based on function: the language(s) one
Bloomfield, Leonard. Language
Native Speaker: Myth and Reality By Alan Davies
tongue". 2001 census. Retrieved on 2008-08-25.
Mugubi, John (2006-10-06). "Sheng
is the 'Slanguage' of the Future", Nation
(Nairobi), Nation Newspapers Limited, p. Opinion.
Archived from the
original on 2006-10-28.