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A first language (also native language, mother tongue, arterial language, or L1) is the language(s) a person has learned from birth or within the critical period, or that a person speaks the best and so is often the basis for sociolinguistic identity. 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 native tongue, (for example, when the child's parents speak different languages). Those children are usually called bilingual.
By contrast, a second language is any language that one speaks other than one's first language.
One of the more widely accepted definitions of a native speaker is someone who was born in a particular country and was raised to speak the language of that country during the critical period of development. It is believed that this definition was formed during the colonization of the Americas. The original colonists were considered native speakers of English, but their offspring were considered incompetent, non-native speakers of English simply because they were born in North America. 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. The journal Language Sciences has published an article which states that an individual qualifies as a "native speaker" of a language if they were born and immersed in the language during youth, in a family where the adults shared a similar language experience as the child. Native speakers are considered to be an authority on their given language due to their natural acquisition process regarding the language, versus having learned the language later in life. This is achieved through personal interaction with the language and speakers of the language. Native speakers will not necessarily be knowledgeable of every grammatical rule of the language, but will have "intuition" pertaining to the language. Instead of being directly taught the rules of English grammar, native speakers have unconsciously learned the rules through their experience with the language.
Sometimes the term mother tongue or mother language is used for the language that a person learned 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 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 (see language attrition).
Some[who?] claim that "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.[clarification needed]
In some countries, such as Kenya, India, and various East Asian countries, "mother language" or "native language" is used to indicate the language of one's ethnic group, 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 "mother tongue" refers to the language of one's ethnic group regardless of actual proficiency, while the "first language" refers to the English language that was established on the island through British colonisation, 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.
J. 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).
21 February was proclaimed the International Mother Language Day by UNESCO on 17 November 1999.
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. While some argue that there is no such thing as "native speaker" or a "mother tongue", it is important to understand these key terms as well as understand what it means to be a "non-native" speaker and the implications that can have on one's life. Research suggest that while a non-native speaker may develop fluency in a targeted language after about two years of immersion, it can actually take between five to seven years for that child to be on the same working level as their native speaking counterparts. This has implications on the education of non native speakers.
The topic of native speaker, also gives way to discussion about what exactly bilingualism is. A person is bilingual if they are equally proficient in both languages. A person who grows up speaking English and begins learning Spanish for four years is not necessarily bilingual unless they speak the two languages with equal fluency. Pearl and Lambert were the first to test only “balanced” bilinguals—that is, children who are completely fluent in two languages and feel that neither is their “native” language because they grasp the two so perfectly. This study found the following: Balanced bilinguals perform significantly better in tasks that require flexibility (they constantly shift between the two known languages depending on the situation/requires constant juggling), balanced bilinguals more aware of arbitrary nature of language and also that balanced bilinguals choose word associations based on logical rather than phonetic preferences. 
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 French-speaking couple might have a daughter who learned French first, then English; but if she were to grow up in an English-speaking country, she would likely be most proficient in English. Other examples are India, Malaysia and South Africa, 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 and Riograndenser Hunsrückisch, a German-rooted language brought to southern 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 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.
In an article titled “The Native Speaker: An Achievable Model?” published by the Asian EFL Journal  a study was compiled which states that there are six general principles which relate to the definition of “native speaker”. These principles, according to the study, are typically accepted by language experts across the scientific field. A native speaker is defined according to the guidelines that: