Mother tongue, first language, native language or dominant language?




In the strictest sense, we all have a mother tongue as we all have only one (biological) mother. – But does this mean that the language our mother talked to us is automatically our mother tongue? What about this friend I had in school, who was adopted when she was 2 and grew up in a Dutch family: would her mother tongue be Swahili because her mum was talking Swahili to her or would it be Dutch, because this was the language the mother who adopted her talked to her?

Usually, mother tongue – or father tongue to be politically correct! –  defines the first language we were exposed to, our L1, the first language we understand, speak, the one we grew up with or that our parents (or caregivers) speak with us. And usually people tend to speak this language for a long time.

If we want to define the first language we speak, learn and feel comfortable with, the term first language may seem more appropriate. This first language doesn’t have to be one. In bilingual families it can be two or three: the important aspect to define a language as first language is, that the child uses it on a regular basis, preferably every day – linguists suggested a few years ago that an exposure of at least 20% of the daily time would be optimal for a child to become (almost) equally proficient in the family languages (but this has changed already and the duration of exposure is not the most important factor of becoming a bilingual!).

If there are more than one first languages in a family, we can also use the term of family languages: these would be for example the language a child talks with the mother, another one with the father, a third one with a caregiver (i.e. at daycare, school etc.), maybe a next one with extended family or locals, a fourth one with friends…

My parents only spoke German with me and my sister, but we were exposed to Italian since day one. We didn’t “learn” it in the conventional, academical way, so Italian counts as our second-mother-tongue or one of our first languages. – Usually, when people ask me which is my mother tongue (or mother language) I answer German and Italian. Both languages are still equally dominant and valuable for me.

If I analyze the different phases in my life, there were phases where Italian or French or German were dominant languages. In one phase (of almost 6 years) I would mainly speak Italian and French (and study Old-French and Old-Provençal, which felt like “living” in this time and period!). During that period I really had difficulties communicating in German and couldn't form a complete sentence in German.

Only when this linguistic situation changed and I focused more on German and Italian, my German became more dominant for a short period.

English is the fourth language I’ve learned and I didn’t use it very often from age 20 to 34. I did re-activate and improve it when we moved to the Netherlands and our children started attending an English school. At the same time I also improved my Dutch.

In the last 11 years, English and Dutch became the most dominant languages, with German being our family language.

Therefore, my first languages are now German, English and Dutch, with occasionally Italian (the language that still feels like the closest to my heart!), French and Swissgerman.

Using a term like family language would also be an option, but then it would mean that the whole family (maybe even the extended family?) shares these languages or gives them the same value. But this, in a family of five (even three would be enough!) is not very realistic.

Also, using first language instead of family language, I would imply that the dominance of the languages within a family can change throughout time. Situations change, we move abroad, we immerse into other cultures and languages and within a bilingual family this can be a reason for preferring one language to another – even if only for a certain period of time.

Which are my children’s first languages?

From a chronological point of view, this would be Italian and Swissgerman for all of my children, but only for their first years.

This changed when they started attending the Dutch crèche and then an English school.

Today – I should better say “at the moment”! – they consider German, English and Dutch as their main languages. They don’t feel that confident in Swissgerman or Italian (at the moment). But I know by my own experience that this can change if the linguistic situation changes again or if they just decide to talk them more often.

For bilingual children whom's linguistic situation within the family and social context changes in their early years, the concept of first language changes too.

The first language or mother tongue plays an important role in sociolinguistics, as it is the basis for people’s sociolinguistic identity. Terms like native language or mother tongue refer to an ethnic group rather than to the first language.

Native speakers are considered to be “authority on their given language due to their natural acquisition process regarding the language, versus having learned the language later in life”.

In this case, my native languages would be German, Italian, Swissgerman and Dutch because I did acquire them naturally, without studying them. I did not “learn” them at school, I did imitate speakers and copy sentences. The fact that someone is a “native” speaker because he or she acquired this language at an early stage, doesn’t really make sense to me.

We are perfectly able to acquire a language in a “natural” way also in a later stage of our life. In the same way, the mother tongue can be no longer the dominant one later in life (cfr. language attrition).

In his lecture “English and Welsh” in 1955, J.R.R. Tolkien distinguishes the “native tongue” from the “cradle tongue”. The cradle tongue being the language we learn during early childhood and the 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 confessed to such an affinity to the Middle English of the West Midlands in particular)” (cfr. pdf of “English and Welsh” by J.R.R. Tolkien)

We each have our own personal linguistic potential: we each have a native language. But that is not the language that we speak, our cradle-tongue, the first-learned. Linguistically we all wear ready-made clothes, and our native language comes seldom to expression, save perhaps by pulling at the ready-made till it sits a little easier. But though it may be buried, it is never wholly extinguished, and contact with other languages may stir it deeply.

My chief point here is to emphasize the difference between the first-learned language, the language of custom, and an individual’s native language, his inherent linguistic predilections: not to deny that he will share many of these with others of his community. He will share them, no doubt, in proportion as he shares other elements in his make-up. (cfr. “English and Welsh” by J.R.R. Tolkien, p.18)


The predilection of a language is, in my opinion, more important than the chronological place it has in our language acquisition history. For me, personally, the language I prefer speaking and that is closest to my heart and I’m more spontaneous in, is not the language my parents talked to me during the first period of my life.



If you are interested in this topic and would like to know more about it:

I hold workshops on bilingualism and parenting the bilingual child and consult parents, caregivers and teachers about it.


About the origin of the term mother tongue

“The origin of the term mother tongue harks back to the notion 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.” However, this type of culture-specific notion is a misnomer. The term was used by Catholic monks to designate a particular language they used, instead of Latin, when they are “speaking from the pulpit”.That is, the “holy mother of the Church” introduced this term and colonies inherited it from the Christianity as a part of their colonial legacy, thanks to the effort made by foreign missionaries in the transitional period of switching over from 18th-century Mercantile Capitalism to 19th-century Industrial Capitalism in India.” (cfr. wikipedia)


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