mother tongueWhat do you consider to be the mother tongue of your multilingual child? Would you say it’s literally the ‘tongue’ of the mother (even if that is the minority language) or all of the languages spoken by your child? The language where they were born? Or even the school language??

To be honest- who cares? What difference does it make to our children? Well, often schools and states do care… children have to indicate what their first language is for the school records, and many health care providers etc. ask for the mother tongue too. There are other form- filling situations  where you are only allowed to put in one language… wouldn’t it be nice if we could just write “bilingual”, and leave it at that!

The mother tongue is usually related to one’s “first language”, but that in itself is a confusing statement for many.  A person can have two or more native languages, thus being a native bilingual or indeed multilingual, and therefore having two or more “first” languages- as with a friend of mine here in Austria whose heritage is British, Mauritian and Greek- hence she speaks English, French and Greek all at a native level. 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 probably become most proficient in English, due to the exposure to the language.

Another example of the above would be if a baby were adopted from birth into country A- say Spain from country B- say France. If he hadn’t been exposed to any language or culture from France, and assuming that the adoptive parents didn’t speak French, he wouldn’t be able to claim French as his mother tongue, or possibly even speak it. For lovers of Modern Family we have seen exactly that- Cameron and Mitchell’s daughter Lily doesn’t speak much Korean (if any), although she was adopted from there. By the same token, a child straddling 2 cultures and languages from birth would claim both languages as his mother tongues. There will be as many ways to tweak this as there are combinations and languages possible in the world. That’s the fun part, but paradoxically the horrible one when we have to fill in forms and force ourselves into little boxes.

The way we define our language ability is often dependent on the country we come from: in the English language we talk about people being “native speakers” of a language as well as having a “mother-tongue” whereas in German they only use “Muttersprache/ler”. Because the vocabulary used in different languages has slightly different connotations, it’s possible to infer different things by this. In German the language can also be described as a “Bildungsprache”, the language of your education, and for many children this can still be a mother tongue, whether or not it’s the language that either of your parents speak.

The idea behind the “mother tongue”, however old- fashioned this word may be, can also refer to what the child is immersed in from earliest infancy, and for some people, it might also include the culture and traditions, food, and a myriad of other considerations. From this perhaps comes the distinction between “mother tongue” and “native level bilingualism”, or to put it another way, cultural exposure vs fluency. In this sense the term “mother tongue” is a bit outdated because it implies that it is the mother who spends most of her time with her child, at least in the beginning, so naturally the child first learns the language of the mother. This is more likely to be the language(s) that a baby or child learns first and later on speaks best, and this is most likely the language of at least one of the parents.

Limiting our form- filling choices to one mother tongue basically doesn’t allow multilinguals to express the fact that they are, well, multilingual. Their very brains are put together differently, why should they pretend otherwise? One of the most common misconceptions about bilinguals is that while they speak many languages, only ONE is the “real” best one; it’s important to fight this misconception. A colleague of mine’s 12-year old son surprisingly considers both the languages he has been acquiring as native, although only Russian is really native to both of his parents. He described them as a “mother tongue” and “father tongue” – a wonderful idea, and reflecting what the child himself thinks about it.

It is virtually impossible to define what another person’s mother tongue is – everybody defines it by and for himself. As the world becomes more and more multilingual perhaps schools and institutions will catch up with the rest of us. Until then we will have to hiss in frustration at the limitations, and reflect our multilingual personalities in other ways!