Raising Bilingual Kids & Little Global Citizens


Mother Tongue, Defining the Mother Language

Mother tongue meaning and definition

Last Updated on March 27, 2024 by Bilingual Kidspot

Defining the Mother Tongue, What it Means and all you need to know

You may have heard the phrase “mother tongue” or “mother language” and wondered what in the world it even means.

It is an ambiguous phrase that is often meshed with the terms like “native language” or “first language”.  However, they aren’t exactly the same.

Keep reading to find out everything you need to know about the mother tongue including:

  • Mother tongue meaning and definition
  • Can you have more than one mother tongue
  • How mother tongue differs from your first language

Mother Tongue Meaning & Definition

The mother tongue (or mother language) has several definitions. Here are the top four mother tongue meanings:

The first and most common mother tongue meaning is: the language that a child’s mother and father speak. This is the definition we will explore in-depth in this post.

Other mother tongue definitions include:

  • The language a child grew up speaking.
  • The language of a particular area or ethnic group.
  • The language from which other languages are formed.

Is the mother tongue the same as the first language?

Many sources do refer to mother tongue and native language, or first language, synonymously. However, there are some problems with that grouping.

The mother tongue and first language are not always the same, if mother tongue is used to describe either the mother or father’s native language.

The first language is the language that a child learns to speak first in life.

Therefore, depending on exposure, the mother tongue and the first language may or may not be the same.

On some occasions, even if parents speak the mother tongue at home, children may begin using the dominant community language first if they are exposed to it more.

Parents may also have differing mother tongues, meaning the child is exposed to multiple languages at once.

Is the mother tongue a dialect?

The mother tongue can be a dialect, depending on the language natively spoken by the mother and father.

However, the term mother tongue is not used to define one specific language.

Can a person have more than one mother tongue?

Yes, people can have more than one mother tongue.

If both parents speak different languages (OPOL), as mentioned above, a bilingual child would have two mother tongues.

However, this is not the case with all bilinguals. If both parents spoke English at home and a child learned French at school, (using MLAH) that bilingual child would still only have one mother tongue.

However, if a child in the same school had a father who spoke English and a mother who spoke French, this child would have two mother tongues.

How is the mother tongue acquired?

The mother tongue is acquired through a natural process that begins while the child is in the womb.

After birth, children are surrounded by language, generally, their mother tongue, being spoken around them.

Over time, through listening and observation, they learn to replicate the sounds and words they’ve heard around them.

bilingual baby brains

Why is your mother tongue important?

Your mother tongue is important because it can help you stay connected to where your mother or father is originally from.

It also gives insight into the language environment and culture that your mother or father grew up in.

The mother tongue also provides you with a cultural context.

Language teaches you a certain people group’s views toward respect, elders, and community in the ways you address one another. This structure forms, in part, your views of the world and others.

In addition, certain words simply do not exist in other languages. This can teach you cultural nuances you may miss if you did not speak your mother tongue.

Can you forget your mother tongue?

It is possible to forget your mother tongue. If the mother tongue is only spoken by parents or extended family, people may begin to forget their mother tongue due to lack of use.

This, unfortunately, is how many languages begin to die out. The community language overtakes the home language.

This often occurs when children begin attending school and the majority of their day is spent in the community language instead of the mother tongue.

It can also occur if a person moves away from their community and no longer has speakers of their home language to communicate with. For example when a child is adopted.

How does your mother tongue influence learning and language acquisition?

Your mother tongue influences learning and language acquisition because it teaches you a basic linguistic structure, or how languages work.

This linguistic base forms the assumptions your brain makes about language and the sounds you are most attuned to.

You learn how to guess when one word begins and another ends through intonation and to judge the mood of a speaker by their tone.

When trying to learn a new language, you will attempt to apply the rules you already know from your first language.

If the two languages have similar roots, it will be much easier for you to acquire the second language than if you had to learn an entirely new structure.

Why do people find it difficult to learn their mother tongue?

People may have difficulty learning their mother tongue because they do not use it often enough or they are not exposed to it frequently.

Research has shown that, generally, children need around 30% of their language input to be in the mother tongue to acquire fluency.

Although there are many cases where children have become fluent without this much exposure due to the quality of their interactions, consistent exposure is key to learning a new language.

Without enough input, a child will struggle to obtain fluency in their mother tongue.

Why is it called the mother tongue?

The mother tongue is referred to as such because it is the language of your primary caregiver, which traditionally was the mother.

However, this has sparked recent debate about whether the term father tongue should be used as well to give equal importance to the father’s language.

Learning your mother tongue is often a very important part of understanding and preserving your cultural heritage.

If your mother tongue isn’t the same language you grew up speaking in school or at home, consider taking the time to learn your mother tongue.

It just may help you more fully understand and appreciate who you are and where you come from.

More definitions:

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What is the mother tongue meaning

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