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First language

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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

A first language, native language, or mother/father/parent tongue (also known as arterial language or L1) is a language 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 of one's ethnic group rather than one's first language.[2] 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.

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  • ✪ Tower of Babel vs Linguistics - the quest for the first language
  • ✪ First Language - The Race to Save Cherokee
  • ✪ What Did the First Human Language Sound Like?


The Tower of Babel, the story of how one original language shattered into many, was one of humanity's early attempts to explain languages. Thousands of years later, linguists investigated exactly how languages evolved. When they put the pieces together though, did it look anything like the Babel story? Or was this just a tall tale? So the story goes, the whole earth once spoke the same language. (Reading Hebrew) vaihi khól ha-'árets sáfa 'eháth One day they traveled to the land of Šin‘ar where they worked together to build a city with a migdal, a tower to reach to the skies. Their Supreme Deity wasn't having it though and scrambled their language so they could no longer understand each other. This story stuck. Jewish writers speculated what the original "Adamic language" was and how many tongues it split into. Was it 70 or 72? A Persian contended Adamic might be Syriac, while this Syrian went with Hebrew. Europeans claimed everything from Swedish to... Irish, which apparently just picked out the best bits of those 72 original flavors. Still, Hebrew remained the prime candidate. After all, it's the language of the story, right? Details changed but the interpretation held: one original tongue, at a single place and time, broke into a bunch of distinct languages, in order to keep people from coordinating and understanding each other. Then came the 17 and 1800's. Explorers and trade routes shrank the world. Distant people discovered each other's languages for the first time. Intrigued scholars found common patterns that shifted our view of the world's languages. Some languages consistently looked a tweak away from each other. Take Arabic and Hebrew ðiʾib and zəʾev, ðakar and zaḵar. Behind these words there's a regular sound correspondence: where Arabic has ðāl, Hebrew has zain. These were cognates, the same word evolving differently in different languages. Comparing cognates, a picture emerged of a family tree! Walking back up the branches of the tree, you could reconstruct the common ancestor. But testing this method in the wild world, the trails of cognates didn't lead back to a single proto-language. No, there were clusters of closely and distantly related languages belonging to separate families. English, Irish, Greek and even Sanskrit were clearly part of an Indo-European language family. From the South China Sea to the Eastern Pacific, the languages of Austronesia all shared their own common ancestor. And Hebrew, once dubbed the original language, fit snuggly among its kin, one twig of an Afroasiatic family. It wasn't even the "purest" or best preserved twig. For example, it wore away consonant distinctions that its relatives, Aramaic and Arabic, kept. Also, change turned out to be something languages were doing naturally, all of the time. Babel still held one intriguing idea over us, though: that original language. See, reconstructions dead-ended several thousand years back. Beyond that, historical linguists started to feel like they simply had nothing to say. Nothing to say, eh? Well, tie your own hands, but you can't hold back a maverick! So you established families and reconstructed parent languages. Well, why not do the same thing again: compare proto-languages for cognates and build families on top of families? Families are coming together! It's a superfamily!! Enter the late Joseph Greenberg. Classify languages first, he said, then compare and reconstruct. Classify first? Yes, it's called Mass Comparison! Take a huge number of languages and look for patterns in them. Patterns in vocabulary, but also in their typology, the comparative structure of the world's languages. You know, stuff like: how many vowels does it have? What's its basic word order? He cast his net wide and caught some huge superfamilies. Indo-European, Turkic, Mongolian, Japanese and more belong to Eurasiatic. And, this one drew tons of flak, but the complicated languages of the Americas are one happy Amerind family. Then in the 90's Merritt Ruhlen ran all the way. He compared vocabulary from across the globe and reconstructed 27 proto-words. Here it was: our first look at the parent of all living tongues, Proto-World! Or Proto-Human or Proto-Sapiens if that's your style. Proto-World had words like *tik, *ku, *ma, *akwa, *kuna! A decade later, he went after the typology of Proto-World. Apparently, our ancestors spoke their sentences with a subject, then an object, then a verb. They put adjectives before nouns. And instead of prepositions, they used postpositions. Were we finally staring into the face, or the tongue, of that long-lost original language? Historical linguists said, neh, and they tore into these results. These short words could easily be chance look-alikes! You can't account for borrowings! The meanings of your "cognates" are all over the place! Your flimsy method lets you base reconstructions on irrelevant evidence! Thus, they confidently tossed Mass Comparison into the bins of fringe linguistics. Pseudoscience. And yet Babel's first and biggest claim lingers. The mavericks still swear we're onto something. Are we? Or are they telling another tall tale? Stick around and subscribe for language.



A lesson at Kituwah Academy on the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina. The language immersion school, operated by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, teaches the same curriculum as other American primary schools, but Cherokee is the medium of instruction from preschool onward, and students learn it as a first language. Such schools have proven instrumental in the preservation and perpetuation of Cherokee.
A lesson at Kituwah Academy on the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina. The language immersion school, operated by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, teaches the same curriculum as other American primary schools, but Cherokee is the medium of instruction from preschool onward, and students learn it as a first language. Such schools have proven instrumental in the preservation and perpetuation of Cherokee.

One of the more widely accepted definitions of native speakers is that they were born in a particular country raised to speak the language of that country during the critical period of their development.[3] 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 as the child.[4] 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.[4]

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."[5] 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).

Mother tongue

International Mother Language Day Monument in Sydney, Australia, unveiling ceremony, 19 February 2006
International Mother Language Day Monument in Sydney, Australia, unveiling ceremony, 19 February 2006

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 are "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.[6][7]

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 ("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, which 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.

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 happens to learn during early childhood, and 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).

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


The first language of a child is part of the personal, social and cultural identity.[8] Another impact of the first language is that it brings about the reflection and learning of successful social patterns of acting and speaking.[9] 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 the 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 and seven years for that child to be on the same working level as their native speaking counterparts. That has implications on the education of non-native speakers.[10]

The topic of native speaker also gives way to discussion about what exactly bilingualism is. One definition is that a person is bilingual by being 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, a child who is 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), more aware of arbitrary nature of language and also that balanced bilinguals choose word associations based on logical rather than phonetic preferences.[11][12]


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 the child grew up in an English-speaking country, the child would likely be most proficient in English. Other examples are in India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Kenya, Malaysia, Singapore, and South Africa, where most people speak more than one language.

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 of 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 one's 'native language'.

Defining "native language"

  • Based on origin: the language(s) one learned first (the language(s) in which one has established the first long-lasting verbal contacts).
  • Based on internal identification: the language(s) one identifies with/as a speaker of;
  • Based on external identification: the language(s) one is identified with/as a speaker of, by others.
  • Based on competence: the language(s) one knows best.
  • Based on function: the language(s) one uses most.

Defining "native speaker"

The 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 guidelines as this:

  1. The individual acquired the language in early childhood.
  2. The individual has intuitive knowledge of the language.
  3. The individual is able to produce fluent, spontaneous discourse.
  4. The individual is competent in communication.
  5. The individual identifies with or is identified by a language community.
  6. The individual has a dialect accent (including the official dialect).

See also


  1. ^ Bloomfield, Leonard. Language ISBN 81-208-1196-8
  2. ^ "K*The Native Speaker: Myth and Reality By Alan Davies ISBN 1-85359-622-1[page needed]
  3. ^ "Who Is An Ideal Native Speaker?! Andisheh Saniei, English Language Department, Science and Research Branch, Islamic Azad University, Tehran, Iran" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 2 February 2018. Retrieved 1 February 2018.
  4. ^ a b Love, Nigel, and Umberto Ansaldo. "The Native Speaker and the Mother Tongue." Language Sciences 32.6 (2010): 589-93. Print.
  5. ^ "mother tongue". 2001 census. Archived from the original on 16 September 2008. Retrieved 25 August 2008.[unreliable source?]
  6. ^ [Ivan Illich] in Patttanayak, 1981:24 cited in "(M)other Tongue Syndrome: From Breast to Bottle" Archived 30 August 2017 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Ivan Illich, "Vernacular Values" Archived 20 July 2016 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ "Terri Hirst: The Importance of Maintaining a Childs First Language". Archived from the original on 12 March 2016.
  9. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 May 2013. Retrieved 17 September 2013.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  10. ^ Second Language Acquisition Essential Information: Professor J. Cummins
  11. ^ "Language Proficiency: Defining Levels Avoids Confusion". 26 August 2013. Archived from the original on 17 September 2013. Retrieved 13 November 2013.
  12. ^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on 24 October 2013. Retrieved 21 October 2013.CS1 maint: Archived copy as title (link)
  13. ^ Lee, Joseph. "The Native Speaker: An Achievable Model?". Asian EFL Journal. 7 (2).
This page was last edited on 12 January 2019, at 19:54
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