Saturday 11 December 2010

Mother tongues

Going by straightforward definitions, a mother tongue should be the tongue that your mother uses. Assuming that she uses it to you and so you learn it from her, your mother’s tongue is then your mother tongue too.

“Is that your tongue, mother?”
Photo: Drawn on wood by T. W. Wood, 1869 (Wikimedia Commons)

However, as I’ve been arguing in this blog, things to do with languages are seldom straightforward and, when they happen to be, someone is sure to mess them up. In lay and specialist circles alike, the meaning of the term “mother tongue” ranges from ‘first language’, through ‘best language’, to ‘main language’. We sometimes even find mother tongue equated to “L1”, a term belonging to an intriguing tradition of identifying languages by numbers. I will have quite a few things to say about 1st Ls and other numbered Ls in future, but what these supposed definitions of mother tongue have in common is that they are all undefined themselves. So saying that your mother tongue is, for example, your best language, or vice versa, if you don’t know what a mother tongue or a best language might be, is like explaining that sulphuric acid is H2SO4 and that H2SO4 is sulphuric acid, if you have no idea what sulphuric acid and H2SO4 might be.  

In short, there is no definition of mother tongue. We could live with this: other things that we talk about, like life, or love, or languages, or multilinguals, have no definition either. But what “no definition” in fact means is ‘many definitions’. Which means that everyone defines mother tongue their way, which means that nobody is talking about the same thing when they are talking about mother tongue. The only thing on which there seems to be some agreement is that mother tongue is singular (meaning ‘just one’, not ‘funny’).

One solution to mother tongue singularity is to assign one to a child, or the other way around, on the strength of the child’s presumed ancestry. But since someone decided that ancestry is also a singularity, and since children can have multi-ancestries through no choice of their own, this solution in fact solves very little. In Singapore, to give but one example, a child’s mother tongue is defined according to the ethnicity of the child’s father. This raises the fascinating question of how a child’s father tongue might be defined, not to mention a child’s other-caregiver tongues, which do not necessarily match the parents’, in multilingual communities like Singapore. (A side-thought: isn’t it interesting that so many terms that have to do with language, languages, their uses and their users are undefined, undefinable, or funnily defined?)

In short, again, mother tongues are assigned on the strength of random criteria. It doesn’t matter, for example, that your mother (or your father) may have more than one mother(father) tongue her(him)self, and use all of them with you, or that your mother (ditto) doesn’t use any of her own tongues with you. It doesn’t matter either that your mother tongue might possibly be what you are exposed to as a child, which is (yet) another definition of this term, and might possibly mean that “mother tongue” corresponds to your full linguistic repertoire. In monolingual contexts, this is certainly what mother tongue means. In multilingual ones, your supposed mother tongue may actually turn out to be a step-tongue, to borrow and generalise the pithy title of Anthea Fraser Gupta’s book.

Singular mother tongue assignments arise in multilingual contexts only, and their consequences are far from random. If you are matched to a mother tongue, you are expected to show proficiency in that tongue, and to represent its speakers. Including if you’re a child. If you don’t, because you don’t use that tongue in the way someone says you should, or because it’s not your fault that someone decided you had that tongue, your whole future may be at stake. Especially if you’re a child.

Children go to school. Decisions about mother tongue gain relevance in schooling contexts, for schooling purposes. Knowing that children are the ones to be schooled, and assuming that schools are there for the children, one would be justified in believing that mother or other tongue assignments would take the schooling child’s conditions into account. My next post will check this out.

© MCF 2010

Next post: Schooling in tongues. Wednesday 15th December 2010.


  1. I've never really liked using the term "mother tongue" in professional contexts. I think it leaves too much assumed, and also too much unsaid. People can be shocked when you tell them that it is possible for a child to "lose" his/her mother tongue, or that the mother tongue doesn't end up to be their strongest language. Language development occurs over the course of a lifetime. An individual may share his/her strongest language with the mother in early childhood, but influences of academic and other life experiences may actually cause him/her to have a different primary language in adulthood, or to nearly completely lose expressive abilities in that "mother tongue." Language development is dynamic, and a child's use of language is very opportunistic- in the sense that children use languages when, where, and with whom they're needed. As soon as they perceive that a language is no longer vital to communication, their use of it will decrease--- even when that language was their so called "mother tongue."

  2. Vanessa: Exactly. Languages are there to be used as needed. One of the problems with “mother tongue” institutions (or “native language”, for that matter) is that you’re stuck with them.
    This labelling-of-people-by-language is, to me, a good example of the focus on constructs like “languages”, and of the habit of taking the tool for the user, within much linguistics – a focus which has spread to everyday views about language. It makes as much sense to me as saying, for example, that once an electrician, always an electrician. Stability in human matters is also a construct.
    Thank you for joining this blog!

  3. Nice article, thanks Madalena. I encounter precisely what you described.
    These days when I am puzzled about which language I should speak to my baby, those who attempt to help me will first ask 'what's your mother tongue?', I'd answer 'that depends what it is referring to'. I was told that Mandarin was my first language (when I picked it up from the nursery in northern China), but Cantonese is what I speak best since I grew up in Hong Kong, then my mother (and my father) speaks Shanghainese. And now in Singapore I use mostly English with my spouse and at work.
    Another definition we can perhaps add here is: intimacy - a mother tongue can be a language that you feel familiar or "closed". Unfortunately this can also be hard as intimacy may not mean fluency. Besides, moving around makes us feel lost of identity.

  4. Yvonne: I really like the way you put this (emphasis mine), “I was told that Mandarin was my first language”. Like one follows orders? Be a good girl, Do your homework, Have Mandarin as first language.....
    Very insightful what you say about the language(s) of intimacy. All of these factors matter, don’t they?, fluency, globetrotting, identity, memories, people we associate with places and times. They all reflect in our languages, when we have more than one, and in our feelings about the languages themselves. This is why I feel very puzzled, like you, when people talk about one language, in which to *be* what we are.
    Thank you for wanting to be part of this blog!


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