Generally when a person is said to be speaking in their native language, it refers to the person’s language that he or she learned from birth, which is also termed as mother tongue. Many terms may also refer to it, such as native tongue, home language, dominant language or first language, although their individual meanings could be different in context.
Modern educators and linguist often refer to them as L1 speakers, while L2 means a second language that a person studies or speaks.
The concept of mother tongue
Mother tongue is not only about the language that a person learns from birth. It is also the person’s dominant language and his or her home language. This means that the person learns not only to speak the language but also gain the ability to know the communicative and linguistic aspects of it by heart. Since it is the only language the person knows since birth, it’s of high importance in the person’s life.
In the translation industry, companies claim that their translators are all native language speakers. It is also often said that translators must only translate into their mother tongue, meaning one should translate into his or her dominant language.
Mother tongues around the world
The latest data from Ethnologue show that there are 7,099 living languages around the world. In 2015 there were still 7,102. Languages continue to die or become extinct due to lack of native speakers. Out of these living languages, there are 23 mother tongues, distributed as follows:
The differences in the numbers could be attributed to migration, where people forsake their mother tongue languages to use the dominant language of their new homes. Rural youth move to the cities, assimilating the dominant languages that are far different from what they learned at home. Others have to learn new languages that could give them better opportunities for employment. Still more people begin to learn new languages because of increased Internet access and for faster global communication.Linguistically, mother tongue languages that dominate are Chinese, Spanish and English. Chinese might be spoken in 37 countries and has 1,284 million L1 speakers compared to English with 437 million L1 speakers in 106 countries, but the latter is still the lingua franca in the digital world. The list here only shows the number of L1 speakers. However, the number of L2 speakers of some of these languages, including English, could outnumber the L1 speakers.
Why do mother tongue languages die?
It is often said that globalization causes mother tongue languages to die. Others say that it is due to trade and capitalism. Many linguists do not subscribe to these reasons. What they say is that these are more the results rather than the cause of the decline or loss of mother tongue languages.
For them, trade is not a language killer but rather, it boosts the cultural exchange and helps to spread others’ cultures to different regions. Throughout history, new lingua francas were created because of trade exchanges. However, when a country imposes the use of an official trade language, it kills other languages.
To further argue the point, speaking a language of trade or a global language does not make people abandon their mother tongue languages. What it does is make most people bilingual or even multilingual.
In reality, people do not just abandon their mother tongue languages. They will still speak the language they learned at a very young age until they die or until they no longer have people to speak their language with.
What actually causes the loss of a mother tongue language is the interruption or alteration of its transmission. One important cause of this is urbanization. For example, the mother tongue languages of a Giryama and a Gikuyu are different and they would not be able to understand one another if they speak in their native language. So if they were to meet in Nairobi for trade, they would be speaking in one or both trade languages used in Kenya – English and Swahili.
Their children would pick up a bit of their parents’ heritage language but would be better versed in the prevailing language in the city. By the time they grow up and have families of their own, their mother tongue languages would be forgotten. A big crowd drawer is the seemingly easier lifestyle in the city compared to the life in rural areas.
This phenomenon is not new. The first record of huge language loss was during the Neolithic or Agrarian Revolution when the former nomads decided to build permanent settlements and adopted farming. The number of languages they spoke grew and the number of their communities increased. The actual number of speakers of each language was small because communities fragmented before they could increase in size.
Terminology used in defining mother tongue
Among the popular definitions of native speakers accepted by more people is that one is born in a specific country and speaks the country’s language during his or her formative years. A native speaker is accepted as an authority in the language that he or she has spoken and grown up with as a child. This is because they naturally acquired the language. They have had personal interaction both with the language and its speakers.
However, it should be noted that a native speaker does not necessarily mean the person knows all the grammatical rules of the language they were born with. But they would have an instinctive knowledge about rules because they have experienced the language since they were young.
It should be pointed out that children who grew up with bilingual parents can have two mother tongue languages but may only speak the more dominant language even if they understand both languages.
A Catholic priest and philosopher Ivan Illich, who was a Croatian-Austrian, said that Catholic monks were the first to use the term mother tongue. The used the term to assign a specific language they used aside from Latin when they were teaching and preaching.
In many countries in East Asia and in India and Kenya, a native language or a mother language refers to the language of an individual ethnic group. In Singapore, the same meaning of the term is used, even if the person is not proficient in the tribe’s main language. However, what they refer to as their first language is English. When the island nation was under the British Empire, English became their lingua franca, as the language was used as a working language and the medium of instruction.
Significance and importance of mother tongue languages in education
A part of the personal, cultural and social identity of a child is his or her first language. It helps in reflecting and learning the social pattern of speaking and acting of the person, which reflects the difference between a native and non-native speaker.
A non-native speaker of a language can be fluent in it after immersion for at least two years. But to reach the same working level as the native speaker of the language, it might take around five to seven years. Experts say that to be considered a bilingual, the person must be fluent in both languages at the same level.
The study of the relation of bilingualism to intelligence conducted by Peal and Lambert, which was published in 1962 showed the difference in intellect between monolingual and bilingual children. Their findings were different from other studies indicating that monolinguals are more intelligent than bilinguals.
In the study of Peal and Lambert, they found that bilingual school children, aged 10 years, showed that their performance in verbal and nonverbal intelligence tests were significantly higher than the monolinguals. It proved the hypothesis that bilinguals possess a more diverse set of mental capabilities. They also displayed a better attitude.
The study subjects performed better in tasks that required them to be flexible as they were able to shift between their languages according to the situation. They have a better grasp of the arbitrary nature of the languages they know. Moreover, the balanced bilinguals (equally fluent in two languages) used logical preferences instead of phonetic preferences when doing word associations.
International schools are growing in popularity. A strong foundation in a child’s mother tongue allows the child to better understand the curriculum. The child also shows a positive outlook towards the school.
As children develop their first language, they also develop more essential skills simultaneously, including literary and critical thinking skills. They will need these skills when they go through their formal education. There were many studies indicating that the concepts and skills children learned in their native language do not have to be re-taught when they are learning another language.
Children with strong skills in their mother tongue can understand the grammar and structure of other languages better. Their understanding of who they are and what their place in society actually is are deeply understood by children who have strong foundations in their mother tongue. They are more confident. They have a heightened sense of well-being and their academic achievement is higher.
Most studied languages around the world
While there are 23 mother tongue languages across the globe, and only a handful are studied or are taught in schools. Globally the most studied languages include:
In Europe, the list is almost the same, such as:
In the United States, the following are the languages most studied at the university level:
- American Sign Language
A commonality exists among the mother tongue languages that are being studied in the world, in Europe and in schools in the U.S. This only shows that the dominant mother tongue languages are still the most popular and the most preferred, with the top three being English, Spanish and French. With China opening its doors to foreign trade, there is expectation that the Chinese language will move up the ladder. As the rest of the world look to Asia for market development, many other Asian languages are likely to be studied as well.
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