First language

First language

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A first language is the language
Language
Language may refer either to the specifically human capacity for acquiring and using complex systems of communication, or to a specific instance of such a system of complex communication...

(s) a person has learned from birth or within the critical period
Critical Period Hypothesis
The critical period hypothesis is the subject of a long-standing debate in linguistics and language acquisition over the extent to which the ability to acquire language is biologically linked to age...

, or that a person speaks the best and so is often the basis for sociolinguistic identity
Cultural identity
Cultural identity is the identity of a group or culture, or of an individual as far as one is influenced by one's belonging to a group or culture. Cultural identity is similar to and has overlaps with, but is not synonymous with, identity politics....

. In some countries, the terms native language or mother tongue refer to the language of one's ethnic group rather than one's first language. Sometimes, there can be more than one mother tongue, when the child's parents speak different languages. Those children are usually called bilingual.

By contrast, a second language
Second language
A second language or L2 is any language learned after the first language or mother tongue. Some languages, often called auxiliary languages, are used primarily as second languages or lingua francas ....

is any language that one speaks other than one's first language.

Terminology


Sometimes the term native language is used to indicate a language that a person is as proficient in as a native individual 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 as a child at home (usually from their parents). Children growing up in bilingual homes can, according to this definition, have more than one mother tongue or native language.

In the context of population censuses conducted on the Canadian population, Statistics Canada
Statistics Canada
Statistics Canada is the Canadian federal government agency commissioned with producing statistics to help better understand Canada, its population, resources, economy, society, and culture. Its headquarters is in Ottawa....

 defines mother tongue as "the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood by the individual at the time of the census."
It is quite possible that the first language learned is no longer a speaker's dominant language. This includes young immigrant children, whose families have moved to a new linguistic environment, as well as people who learned their mother tongue as a young child at home (rather than the language of the majority of the community), who may have lost, in part or in totality, the language they first acquired
Language acquisition
Language acquisition is the process by which humans acquire the capacity to perceive, produce and use words to understand and communicate. This capacity involves the picking up of diverse capacities including syntax, phonetics, and an extensive vocabulary. This language might be vocal as with...

 (see language attrition
Language attrition
Language attrition is the loss of a first or second language or a portion of that language by individuals. Speakers who routinely use more than one language may not use either of their languages in ways which are exactly like that of a monolingual speaker...

).

Mother Language


The origin of the term "mother tongue" harks back to the fact 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.

In some countries such as Kenya
Kenya
Kenya , officially known as the Republic of Kenya, is a country in East Africa that lies on the equator, with the Indian Ocean to its south-east...

, India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

, and various East Asian countries, "mother language" or "native language" is used to indicate the language of one's ethnic group
Ethnic group
An ethnic group is a group of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage, often consisting of a common language, a common culture and/or an ideology that stresses common ancestry or endogamy...

, in both common and journalistic parlance (e.g. 'I have no apologies for not learning my mother tongue'), rather than one's first language. Also in Singapore
Singapore
Singapore , officially the Republic of Singapore, is a Southeast Asian city-state off the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, north of the equator. An island country made up of 63 islands, it is separated from Malaysia by the Straits of Johor to its north and from Indonesia's Riau Islands by the...

, "mother tongue" refers to the language of one's ethnic group
Ethnic group
An ethnic group is a group of people whose members identify with each other, through a common heritage, often consisting of a common language, a common culture and/or an ideology that stresses common ancestry or endogamy...

 regardless of actual proficiency, while the "first language" refers to the English language that was established on the island through British colonisation
British Empire
The British Empire comprised the dominions, colonies, protectorates, mandates and other territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. It originated with the overseas colonies and trading posts established by England in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. At its height, it was the...

, which is the lingua franca
Lingua franca
A lingua franca is a language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a mother tongue, in particular when it is a third language, distinct from both mother tongues.-Characteristics:"Lingua franca" is a functionally defined term, independent of the linguistic...

 for most post-independence Singaporeans due to its use as the language of instruction in government schools and as a working language.


J. R. R. Tolkien
J. R. R. Tolkien
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, CBE was an English writer, poet, philologist, and university professor, best known as the author of the classic high fantasy works The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.Tolkien was Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College,...

 in his 1955 lecture "English and Welsh
English and Welsh
English and Welsh is the title of J. R. R. Tolkien'svaledictory address to the University of Oxford of 1955.The lecture sheds light on Tolkien's conceptions of the connections of race, ethnicity and language....

" 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
Genetic memory
Genetic memory may refer to:*Genetic memory , present if the state of a biological system depends on its history in addition to present conditions*Genetic memory , a memory present at birth that exists in the absence of sensory experience...

, 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
Middle English
Middle English is the stage in the history of the English language during the High and Late Middle Ages, or roughly during the four centuries between the late 11th and the late 15th century....

 of the West Midlands
West Midlands (region)
The West Midlands is an official region of England, covering the western half of the area traditionally known as the Midlands. It contains the second most populous British city, Birmingham, and the larger West Midlands conurbation, which includes the city of Wolverhampton and large towns of Dudley,...

 in particular).

21 February has been proclaimed the International Mother Language Day
International Mother Language Day
International Mother Language Day is an observance held annually on 21 February worldwide to promote awareness of linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism. It was first announced by UNESCO on 17 November 1999...

 by UNESCO on 17 November 1999.

Significance


The first language of a child is part of their personal, social and cultural identity. Another impact of the first language is that it brings about the reflection and learning of successful social patterns of acting and speaking. It is basically responsible for differentiating the linguistic competence of acting.

To a person his mother tongue is a “blessing in disguise”. It is not merely a time-table subject in his education but is forced upon him from all sides. It is learnt by both the direct or conscious and the indirect or unconscious method. The direct method supplements and regulates the knowledge gained by hearing. The mother tongue is an indispensable instrument for the development of the intellectual, moral and physical aspects of education. It is a subject thought and by which other subjects can be tackled, understood and communicated. Clarity of thought and expression is only possible when one has a certain command over the mother tongue. Weakness in any other subject means weakness in that particular subject only, but weakness in the mother tongue means the paralysis of all thought and the power of expression. Deep insight, fresh discoveries, appreciation and expansion of ideas are only possible when one understands the subject through being able to assimilate and be stimulated by the ideas of the subject.

On multilinguality


One can have two or more native languages, thus being a native bilingual or indeed multilingual
Multilingualism
Multilingualism is the act of using, or promoting the use of, multiple languages, either by an individual speaker or by a community of speakers. Multilingual speakers outnumber monolingual speakers in the world's population. Multilingualism is becoming a social phenomenon governed by the needs of...

. The order in which these languages are learned is not necessarily the order of proficiency. For instance, a French
French language
French is a Romance language spoken as a first language in France, the Romandy region in Switzerland, Wallonia and Brussels in Belgium, Monaco, the regions of Quebec and Acadia in Canada, and by various communities elsewhere. Second-language speakers of French are distributed throughout many parts...

-speaking couple might have a daughter who learned French first, then English
English language
English is a West Germanic language that arose in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England and spread into what was to become south-east Scotland under the influence of the Anglian medieval kingdom of Northumbria...

; but if she were to grow up in an English-speaking country, she would likely be proficient in English. Other examples are India
India
India , officially the Republic of India , is a country in South Asia. It is the seventh-largest country by geographical area, the second-most populous country with over 1.2 billion people, and the most populous democracy in the world...

 , Malaysia and South Africa
Languages of South Africa
South Africa has eleven official languages: Afrikaans, English, Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tswana, Tsonga, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu. Fewer than one percent of South Africans speak a first language other than an official one. Most South Africans can speak more than one language. Dutch and...

, where most people speak more than one language.

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 of Portuguese
Portuguese language
Portuguese is a Romance language that arose in the medieval Kingdom of Galicia, nowadays Galicia and Northern Portugal. The southern part of the Kingdom of Galicia became independent as the County of Portugal in 1095...

 and Riograndenser Hunsrückisch
Riograndenser Hunsrückisch
Riograndenser Hunsrückisch , spoken in parts of Brazil, is a Brazilian West Germanic language derived primarily from the Hunsrückisch dialect of the German Language....

, a German-rooted language brought to southern Brazil by the first German immigrants. In his case, like that of many children whose home language
Home language
Following a widely accepted definition by Valdes , a heritage language is a language that is acquired by individuals raised in homes where the dominant language of the region, such as English in the United States, is not spoken or not exclusively spoken...

 differs from the language of the environment (the 'official' language), it is debatable which language is one's 'mother tongue'. Many scholars have given 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.

Defining mother tongue

  • Based on origin: the language(s) one learned first (the language(s) in which one has established the first long-lasting verbal contacts).
  • Based on internal identification: the language(s) one identifies with/as a speaker of;
  • Based on external identification: the language(s) one is identified with/as a speaker of, by others.
  • Based on competence: the language(s) one knows best.
  • Based on function: the language(s) one uses most.

See also

  • Child Of Deaf Adult
    Child of deaf adult
    A child of a deaf adult, often known by the acronym "CODA", is a person who was raised by a deaf parent or guardian. Many CODAs identify with both deaf and hearing cultures...

  • Human speechome project
    Human speechome project
    The Human Speechome Project, , is an effort to closely observe and model the language acquisition of a child over the first three years of life....

     at MIT
  • Third Culture Kids
  • List of languages by number of native speakers