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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 mother 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.
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 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).
"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."--this type of culture-specific notion is totally a misnomer. The term was used by Catholic monks to designate a particular language they used, in stead 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 C. Mercantile Capitalism to 19th C. Industrial Capitalism in India.
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.
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 learned 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.
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.