What Is The Difference Between “Mother Tongue” And “First Language”?

Talking about language is confusing. Mother tongue, first language, native language and so on, we all define these phrases differently. And each of these definitions aren’t wrong at all since each phrase holds different meanings for each of us.

The other weekend I thought about this as I walked through the shopping centre near my place. Walking briskly, I passed by the stall selling organic beauty products, passed right in front of a middle-aged-looking Caucasian female stall attendant.

Languages help us get along with one another. Including body language | Weekly Photo Challenge: Afloat.

Languages help us get along with one another. Including body language | Weekly Photo Challenge: Afloat.

Ni hao!” she exclaimed. I slowed my walking speed. What? She’s assuming I understand Chinese. Assuming that Mandarin is my mother tongue, which isn’t. It’s Cantonese. No, wait. My family speak Chinese too…so it’s also my mother tongue…

When we speak about mother tongue, we tend to think of a common language spoken by a cultural group or our ancestors. “Mother” in this phrase generally pays homage to “motherland”, the place(s) where our descendents lived and originated. My Chinese-Malaysian parents speak Cantonese to each other and my relatives Mandarin, Hakka and other dialects which I’m honestly not sure of. So my mother tongue is Cantonese. And Mandarin. And more. Sometimes we have multiple mother tongues.

Sometimes we think of our mother tongue as the language “spoken at home to our parents” or or the language “our parents taught us”. For some of us this is true, others not so. As author Rita Rosenback says, in this diverse world we can be “mother-tongue-less” and don’t speak our mother tongue. Growing up, my parents addressed me in English and never Cantonese. Listening to dad and mum chatting with each other and Canto serials blaring from the TV, somehow I picked up enough Canto to order Chinese food in Malaysia and follow Canto newsreaders. But that’s about it.

We usually think of first language and dominant language as the language(s) we’re fluent in, the language we speak every day and don’t hesitate speaking. For me, it’s English – the language I speak at everywhere and think in. But it wasn’t always that way.

While living in Malaysia, I studied Bahasa Melayu in school because it was a compulsory subject and spoke it outside the classroom all the time. Literally everyone in this country does business in Malay so it’s hard to get by if you don’t know the basics. Countless times in Malaysia I went to up to road side Malay food stalls, pointed to a piece of fried chicken and said, “One piece”, and the response from the chef was, “Satu?” – Malay for “one”. Different languages are spoken in different situations; sometimes we have no choice but to speak the language someone addresses us in.

On the subject of native language: it’s similar to mother tongue, a language we’re fluent in speaking and/or writing. Often this phrase is associated with countries too; we’re usually considered a native speaker of a language if we know its grammar conventions down pat and probably have spoken it most of our lives, and maybe lived in a country where the language is primarily spoken.

Interestingly enough, we generally don’t associate the English language with the phrase “mother tongue”. At least that was what I thought growing up. My earliest memory of realising that multiple languages are spoken in this world was when I was about six, sitting on the carpet at home watching my parents having a heated talk in Cantonese. I must have asked for something because my mum suddenly turned to me and sternly said, “Not now”.

I wondered then, “Why not Cantonese? Why is English so important?”. According to the 2011 Census, more than 50% of migrants in Australia speak English well and only 11% of this demographic don’t speak it well.

English is taken for granted as a universal language, an “affluent language”. It’s spoken all over the world, if not as a first language then usually a second language. In the many of the most livable cities, English is the primary language of instruction – English is the language used to conduct business, English is the language used to give directions to taxi drivers, English is the language used to order food in fancy air-conditioned restaurants. Being on this side of the status quo matters to some of us and in a sense, other languages in less developed nations come across as “second-classed”, often spoken amidst and associated with less cushy settings. Maybe some of us from non-Western background speak English to distinguish ourselves from our culture. Time and time again, my dad tells me, “You are Aussie. Australia is home. You must speak like an Aussie.”

Elephants talking in the same language.

Elephants talking in the same language.

Then again, the world is incredibly multicultural today and bilingualism is an asset. Countless language resources are available online these days and anyone can pick up a foreign language. The more languages we know, the more we’re able to understand people of different races. Also, Chinese is the most spoken language in the world with over one billion people speaking it. English comes in second.

Language is always changing, and sometimes our speech and mother tongue is changing faster than we know it. New slang, accents and pop-culture speak pop up in waves now and again. Last year, the Australian National Dictionary Centre named “man bun” as one of the new phrases many Australians have warmed to using. As author Cesar Chavez said, “our language is the reflection of ourselves. A language is an exact reflection of the character and growth of its speakers”. After many years away from Malaysia, my lah’s and leh’s of Malaysian-speak have drifted away…but I’ve not picked up typical Aussie-speak.

That afternoon at the shopping centre, I ignored the woman and kept walking. She persisted. “Ni. Hao.” This time she sounded condescending. I glanced back at her, but still kept walking. She was looking at me straight in the face. Ironically we always assume each of us speak English…if not a certain language. I may be Chinese, an Australian-born Chinese, but I don’t speak Mandarin. My loss. You’re not Chinese, but you speak at least two words of the language.

Good on you.

What’s your first language? What languages do you speak?

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172 thoughts on “What Is The Difference Between “Mother Tongue” And “First Language”?

  1. 🙂 I love that picture! In my mind, mother tongue and first language are synonymous. But this is because I was born and raised exclusively in one country. So, definitions are always based on our experiences. 🙂

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    • You are right. Our perceptions of mother tongue and first language depend on where we have been and our experiences. We are all different and at the end of the day, have the ability to speak different languages 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I recently blogged about writing technical blogs in first language and I couldn’t decide which is the most appropriate term for what I wanted to say. Your post helped me a lot, thanks!

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    • Thanks, Akos. Language labeling can certainly be confusing. Depending on where we’re from and where we’ve been, we each think differently about the languages we speak and perhaps don’t speak as fluently.

      Like

  3. How interesting. My family technically has two mother tongues( French & Haitian Creole). However, I never learned either but have been surrounded by it due to multi language usage at home.

    I guess I can say I am familiar with my mother tongues, but not a native speaker. I am only fluent in my first language English, and semi fluent in additional languages (i.e. Korean) that I learned later on in my life. But, many people including any new family members I meet always assume based on background that I learned my family mother tongue first and foremost. I find it alittle sad that I did not, but it was a decision my parents made.

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    • It is such an interesting family you come from, and you know Korean too. Very skilled in languages. Learning a language takes time, and especially learning a second language, sometimes we can never truly be fluent in it. Also, language is constantly changing.

      Sorry to hear you feel sad about not speaking your mother tongue. All of us are unique, and not speaking our mother tongue really does not make us a worse person. All our skills are different at the end of the day 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

      • Yes, I agree. I am a little sad that I did not learn my families mother tongue because it may have been easier to pick up the language if I had learned as a child. My older sister was able to, but I didn’t have the same experience.

        Actually, in my desired career field as well as future I’d like to learn a lot of languages, so learning my family mother tongue is something I hope to focus on when I have the time.

        But, yes languages change and learning takes time ☺️

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        • Good luck on learning your mother tongue. Languages can certainly be helpful when it comes to work, and it can open up opportunities for travel and translation work.

          We all have different learning capacities. Never to late to learn anything.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Great article I must say. Having to come from a similar background, Malaysian-Chinese, English+Cantonese spoken at home, educated in both Chinese and Malay schools and recently came down under, I’m actually having such dilemma at the moment. Normally if I was asked “what’s your first language?” over a casual conversation I would just spill out every language I know. But recently I was asked to fill in “First Language: ” on an official document, and that kept me wondering till now. My first thought was Malay because of Malaysia but then my Malay is far worse than English and I was educated mostly in English. So i wrote English, but is that right? Please, can someone put me out of my misery…

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    • Thanks, Rodney. Judging from your eloquent comment, I would have guessed your first language is English 🙂 Maybe English is the language that you are the most comfortable with, your first language. Then again, it would depend on how you define first language and how the other person defines it…

      For me, some things are better expressed in Malay and Cantonese, and depending on who I am talking to, I can easily blurt out these words in an English conversation. But English will always be my first language.

      Like

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