A first language, native language or mother/father tongue (also known
as arterial language or L1) is a language that a person has been
exposed to from birth 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.
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
1.1 Mother tongue
3.1 Defining native language
3.2 Defining "native speaker"
4 See also
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
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, 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. 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.
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
In the context of population censuses conducted on the Canadian
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.
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).
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.
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
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
The first language of a child is part of the 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 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
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 he speaks 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), more aware of
arbitrary nature of language and also that balanced bilinguals choose
word associations based on logical rather than phonetic
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 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 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:
The individual acquired the language in early childhood.
The individual has intuitive knowledge of the language.
The individual is able to produce fluent, spontaneous discourse.
The individual is competent in communication.
The individual identifies with or is identified by a language
The individual has a dialect accent (including the official dialect).
Child of deaf adult
Human Speechome Project
Third culture kids
List of languages by number of native speakers
Statistical learning in language acquisition
Father Tongue hypothesis
^ Bloomfield, Leonard.
Language ISBN 81-208-1196-8
^ "K*The Native Speaker: Myth and Reality By Alan Davies
ISBN 1-85359-622-1[page needed]
^ "Who Is An Ideal Native Speaker?! Andisheh Saniei, English Language
Department, Science and Research Branch, Islamic Azad University,
Tehran, Iran" (PDF). ipedr.com. Retrieved 1 February 2018.
^ a b Love, Nigel, and Umberto Ansaldo. "The Native Speaker and the
Language Sciences 32.6 (2010): 589-93. Print.
^ "mother tongue". 2001 census. Retrieved 25 August
2008. [unreliable source?]
^ [Ivan Illich] in Patttanayak, 1981:24 cited in "(M)other Tongue
Syndrome: From Breast to Bottle"
^ Ivan Illich, "Vernacular Values"
^ Terri Hirst: The Importance of Maintaining a Childs First Language
^ "Archived copy" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 10 May
2013. Retrieved 17 September 2013.
Language Acquisition Essential Information: Professor J.
Language Proficiency: Defining Levels Avoids Confusion".
Alsintl.com. 2013-08-26. Retrieved 2013-11-13.
^ Lee, Joseph. "The Native Speaker: An Achievable Model?". Asian EFL
Journal. 7 (2).