First language

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The monument for the mother tongue ("Ana dili") in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan Ana Dili.JPG
The monument for the mother tongue ("Ana dili") in Nakhchivan, Azerbaijan

A first language, native tongue, native language, mother tongue or L1 is the first language or dialect that a person has been exposed to from birth [1] or within the critical period. In some countries, the term native language or mother tongue refers to the language or dialect of one's ethnic group rather than one's first language. [2]


The first language of a child is part of that child's personal, social and cultural identity. [3] Another impact of the first language is that it brings about the reflection and learning of successful social patterns of acting and speaking.[ clarification needed ] [4] Research suggests that while a non-native speaker may develop fluency in a targeted language after about two years of immersion, it can take between five and seven years for that child to be on the same working level as their native speaking counterparts[ citation needed ].

On 17 November 1999, UNESCO designated 21 February as International Mother Language Day.


One of the more widely accepted definitions of native speakers is that they were born in a particular country (and) raised to speak the language or dialect of that country or region during the critical period of their development. [5] [ not in citation given ] The person qualifies as a "native speaker" of a language by being born and immersed in the language during youth, in a family in which the adults shared a similar language experience to the child. [6] Native speakers are considered to be an authority on their given language because of their natural acquisition process regarding the language, as opposed to having learned the language later in life. That is achieved by personal interaction with the language and speakers of the language. Native speakers will not necessarily be knowledgeable about every grammatical rule of the language, but they will have good "intuition" of the rules through their experience with the language. [6]

The designation "native language", in its general usage, is thought to be imprecise and subject to various interpretations that are biased linguistically, especially with respect to bilingual children from ethnic minority groups. Many scholars[ citation needed ] have given definitions of 'native language' based on common usage, the emotional relation of the speaker towards the language, and even its dominance in relation to the environment. However, all three criteria lack precision. For many children whose home language differs from the language of the environment (the 'official' language), it is debatable which language is their "native language".

Defining "native language"

In some countries, such as Kenya, India, Belarus, Ukraine and various East Asian and Central Asian countries, "mother language" or "native language" is used to indicate the language of one's ethnic group in both common and journalistic parlance ("I have no apologies for not learning my mother tongue"), rather than one's first language. Also, in Singapore, "mother tongue" refers to the language of one's ethnic group regardless of actual proficiency, and the "first language" refers to English, which was established on the island under the British Empire, and is the lingua franca for most post-independence Singaporeans because of its use as the language of instruction in government schools and as a working language.

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." [7] [ unreliable source? ] It is quite possible that the first language learned is no longer a speaker's dominant language. That 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 (see language attrition). According to Ivan Illich, the term "mother tongue" was first used by Catholic monks to designate a particular language they used, instead of Latin, when they were "speaking from the pulpit". That is, the "holy mother the Church" introduced this term and colonies inherited it from Christianity as a part of colonialism. [8] [9] J. R. R. Tolkien, in his 1955 lecture "English and Welsh", distinguishes the "native tongue" from the "cradle tongue". The latter is the language one learns during early childhood, and one's true "native tongue" may be different, possibly determined by an inherited linguistic taste[ citation needed ] 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).

Children brought up speaking more than one language can have more than one native language, and be bilingual or multilingual. By contrast, a second language is any language that one speaks other than one's first language.


International Mother Language Day Monument in Sydney, Australia, unveiling ceremony, 19 February 2006 Int-mother-lang-day-monument.jpg
International Mother Language Day Monument in Sydney, Australia, unveiling ceremony, 19 February 2006

A related concept is bilingualism. One definition is that a person is bilingual if they are equally proficient in two languages. Someone who grows up speaking Spanish and then learns English for four years is bilingual only if they speak the two languages with equal fluency. Pearl and Lambert were the first to test only "balanced" bilinguals—that is, a child who is completely fluent in two languages and feels that neither is their "native" language because they grasp both so perfectly. This study found that


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, if a French-speaking couple have a child who learned French first but then grew up in an English-speaking country, the child would likely be most proficient in English. Other examples are India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Kenya, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Africa, where most people speak more than one language.

Defining "native speaker"

Defining what constitutes a native speaker is difficult, and there is no test which can identify one. It is not known whether native speakers are a defined group of people, or if the concept should be thought of as a perfect prototype to which actual speakers may or may not conform. [12]

An article titled "The Native Speaker: An Achievable Model?" published by the Asian EFL Journal [13] states that there are six general principles that relate to the definition of "native speaker". The principles, according to the study, are typically accepted by language experts across the scientific field. A native speaker is defined according to the following guidelines:

  1. The individual acquired the language in early childhood and maintains the use of the language.
  2. The individual has intuitive knowledge of the language.
  3. The individual is able to produce fluent, spontaneous discourse.
  4. The individual is communicatively competent in different social contexts.
  5. The individual identifies with or is identified by a language community.
  6. The individual does not have a foreign accent.

See also

Related Research Articles

Bilingual education Education conducted in two languages

Bilingual education involves teaching academic content in two languages, in a native and secondary language with varying amounts of each language used in accordance with the program model. Bilingual education refers to the utilization of two languages as means of instruction for students and considered part of or the entire school curriculum, as distinct from simply teaching a second language as a subject.

Languages of Pakistan Overview of the languages spoken in Pakistan

Pakistan is a multilingual country with dozens of languages spoken as first languages. The majority Pakistan's languages belong to the Indo-Iranian group of the Indo-European language family.

A heritage language is a minority language learned by its speakers at home as children, and difficult to be fully developed because of insufficient input from the social environment. The speakers grow up with a different dominant language in which they become more competent. Polinsky and Kagan label it as a continuum that ranges from fluent speakers to barely-speaking individuals of the home language. In some countries or cultures which determine a person's mother tongue by the ethnic group they belong to, a heritage language would be linked to the native language.

Diglossia Community restriction of languages or dialects to specific settings

In linguistics, diglossia is a situation in which two dialects or languages are used by a single language community. In addition to the community's everyday or vernacular language variety, a second, highly codified lect is used in certain situations such as literature, formal education, or other specific settings, but not used normally for ordinary conversation. In most cases, the H variety has no native speakers but various degrees of fluency of the low speakers.

Languages of Canada Overview of the languages used in Canada

A multitude of languages have always been spoken in Canada. Prior to Confederation, the territories that would become Canada were home to over 70 distinct languages across 12 or so language families. Today, a majority of those indigenous languages are still spoken; however, only about 0.6% of the Canadian population report an Indigenous language as their mother tongue. Since the establishment of the Canadian state, English and French have been the co-official languages and are, by far, the most spoken languages in the country today.

Language immersion Use of two languages across a variety of educational subjects

Language immersion, or simply immersion, is a technique used in bilingual language education in which two languages are used for instruction in a variety of topics, including math, science, or social studies. The languages used for instruction are referred to as the L1 and the L2 for each student, with L1 being the student's native language and L2 being the second language to be acquired through immersion programs and techniques. There are different types of language immersion that depend on the age of the students, the classtime spent in L2, the subjects that are taught, and the level of participation by the speakers of L1.

A foreign language is a language not commonly spoken in the country of the speaker. However, there must be a defined distinction between foreign language and second language. It is also a language not spoken in the native country of the person referred to.

Second-language acquisition (SLA), sometimes called second-language learning — otherwise referred to as L2acquisition, is the process by which people learn a second language. Second-language acquisition is also the scientific discipline devoted to studying that process. The field of second-language acquisition is regarded by some but not everybody as a sub-discipline of applied linguistics but also receives research attention from a variety of other disciplines, such as psychology and education.

Language death Process in which a language eventually loses its last native speaker

In linguistics, language death occurs when a language loses its last native speaker. By extension, language extinction is when the language is no longer known, including by second-language speakers. Other similar terms include linguicide, the death of a language from natural or political causes, and rarely glottophagy, the absorption or replacement of a minor language by a major language.

Multilingualism Use of multiple languages

Multilingualism is the use of more than one language, either by an individual speaker or by a group of speakers. It is believed that multilingual speakers outnumber monolingual speakers in the world's population. More than half of all Europeans claim to speak at least one language other than their mother tongue; but many read and write in one language. Multilingualism is advantageous for people wanting to participate in trade, globalization and cultural openness. Owing to the ease of access to information facilitated by the Internet, individuals' exposure to multiple languages has become increasingly possible. People who speak several languages are also called polyglots.

Sequential bilingualism occurs when a person becomes bilingual by first learning one language and then another. The process is contrasted with simultaneous bilingualism, in which both languages are learned at the same time.

Languages of Singapore Overview of the languages spoken in Singapore

A multitude of languages are used in Singapore. It consists of several varieties of languages under the families of the Austronesian languages, Dravidian languages, Indo-European languages and Sino-Tibetan languages. According to the Constitution of Singapore, the national language of Singapore is Malay, which plays a symbolic role, as Malays are constitutionally recognised as the indigenous peoples of Singapore, and it is the government's duty to protect their language and heritage. The constitution also states that the four commonly used languages of Singapore are English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil, with the lingua franca between Singaporeans of different races being English, the de facto main language. Singaporeans often speak Singlish among themselves. Singlish is an informal, colloquial form of English that is used in Singapore. Linguists define it as Singapore Colloquial English.

Language attrition is the process of losing a native or first language. This process is generally caused by both isolation from speakers of the first language ("L1") and the acquisition and use of a second language ("L2"), which interferes with the correct production and comprehension of the first. Such interference from a second language is probably experienced to some extent by all bilinguals, but is most evident among speakers for whom a language other than their first has started to play an important, if not dominant, role in everyday life; these speakers are more likely to experience language attrition. It is common among immigrants that travel to countries where languages foreign to them are used.

Heritage language learning, or heritage language acquisition, is the act of learning a heritage language from an ethnolinguistic group that traditionally speaks the language, or from those whose family historically spoke the language. According to a commonly accepted definition by Valdés, heritage languages are generally minority languages in society and are typically learned at home during childhood. When a heritage language learner grows up in an environment with a dominant language that is different from their heritage language, the learner appears to be more competent in the dominant language and often feels more comfortable speaking in that language. "Heritage language" may also be referred to as "community language," "home language," and "ancestral language".

A number of demolinguistic descriptors are used by Canadian federal and provincial government agencies, including Statistics Canada, the Commissioner of Official Languages, the Office québécois de la langue française to assist in accurately measuring the status of the country’s two official languages and its many non-official languages. This page provides definitions of these descriptors, and also records where and for how long each descriptor has been in use.

In Singapore, language planning is associated with government planning. In this top-down approach, the government influences the acquisition of languages and their respective functions within the speech community through the education system. Language planning aims to facilitate effective communication within the speech community, which can result in a language shift or language assimilation. The goals of language planning are very much dependent on the political and social forces present in Singapore during two distinct periods: Colonisation by the British and the Post-Independence period after 1965.

The following outline is provided as an overview of and topical guide to second-language acquisition:

Languages in censuses

Many countries and national censuses currently enumerate or have previously enumerated their populations by languages, native language, home language, level of knowing language or a combination of these characteristics.

A social domain refers to communicative contexts which influence and are influenced by the structure of such contexts, whether social, institutional, power-aligned. As defined by Fishman, Cooper and Ma (1971), social domains "are sociolinguistic contexts definable for any given society by three significant dimensions: the location, the participants and the topic". Similarly, Bernard Spolsky defines domains as "[a]ny defined or definable social or political or religious group or community, ranging from family through a sports team or neighborhood or village or workplace or organization or city or nation state or regional alliance".


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  2. Davies, Alan (2003). The Native Speaker: Myth and Reality. Multilingual Matters. ISBN   1-85359-622-1.[ page needed ]
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  4. Boroditsky, Lera (2001). "Does language shape thought?: Mandarin and English speakers' conceptions of time" (PDF). Cognitive Psychology. 43 (1): 1–22. doi:10.1006/cogp.2001.0748. PMID   11487292. S2CID   5838599. Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 May 2013. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
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  7. "mother tongue". 2001 census. Archived from the original on 16 September 2008. Retrieved 25 August 2008.
  8. [Ivan Illich] in Patttanayak, 1981:24 cited in "(M)other Tongue Syndrome: From Breast to Bottle" Archived 30 August 2017 at the Wayback Machine
  9. Ivan Illich, "Vernacular Values" Archived 20 July 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  10. "Language Proficiency: Defining Levels Avoids Confusion". 26 August 2013. Archived from the original on 17 September 2013. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  11. Hakuta, Kenji; Diaz, Rafael M. (1985), "The relationship between degree of bilingualism and cognitive ability: A critical discussion and some new longitudinal data" (PDF), Children’s Language, vol. 5, pp. 319–344, archived (PDF) from the original on 24 October 2013, retrieved 21 October 2013
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  13. Lee, Joseph J. (2005). "The native speaker: An achievable model?" (PDF). Asian EFL Journal. 7 (2). article 9.