The multiple meanings of ‘mother tongue’

[By Humphrey M Kapau]

Which one is your mother tongue? Is it Swahili, Luchazi, Venda or Tumbuka? Well, this question is not as simple as it looks. It is actually so problematic such that to date, linguists debate on the meaning of ‘mother tongue’. For example, should someone’s mother tongue be the language of their ancestors or the language they were first exposed to when they were born, regardless of whether that language was their native language or an adopted language for home use?

Welcome to today’s article of provocative thought – one meant to raise more dust than settle it. My focus today is to look at the many definitions of ‘mother tongue’ and why each definition is valid and invalid in some way. In case you desire to know the field of linguistics that deals with such topics, well … the typical one is sociolinguistics – “the study of language in relation to society” (see Hudson, 1996: p4, cited by Wadhaugh, 1996/2006: p13).

There are four main criteria used to define a mother tongue and each criterion comes with its own controversy. These criteria are: identification, origin, competence and function (refer to Skutnabb-Kanga, 1984:18).

Identification criterion

Using the lens of identification, mother tongues are viewed as languages of internal and external identity. External identification criterion is probably what you know best and I will start with that. Under this, a ‘mother tongue’ is seen as one’s native language – the language that one is identified as a speaker of by other people (Wadhaugh, 1996/2006). This is the theoretical basis upon which we use synonyms like ‘native language’, ‘vernacular’, ‘home language’, ‘native tongue’, and ‘ethnic language’ to mean ‘mother tongue’.

Defining ‘mother tongue’ on the basis of external identification is never short of criticisms especially from those who enjoy arguing for the sake of it. For example, although the word ‘mother’ in ‘mother tongue’ connotes your original language (like we say ‘motherland’) acquired mainly through our mothers, some people might contend that ‘mother’ is an ambiguous word which can also connote the language of one’s mother. Nothing wrong with that but if that is the case, why is it that in most cultures around the world, one’s so-called ‘mother tongue’ is usually their father’s language and not their mother’s? For example, why is your mother tongue Kaonde when your mother is Tumbuka, or you are termed a Zulu when your mother’s language is Igbo? In other words, why is your mother tongue usually identified on patriarchal basis when its connotation is matriarchal?

To run away from politics of facts and alternative facts surrounding the external identification of ‘mother tongue’, some literatures prefer using less polarising synonyms like ‘native language’, ‘ethnic language’ and ‘vernacular’. Reflecting more on this, I think even the aforementioned synonyms of mother tongue can still raise dust. For example, ‘vernacular’ sounds primitive, excluding, labelling and somewhat offensive. What do you think?

In internal identification, a mother tongue is seen as a language that an individual identifies with. Someone can be externally identified as Ngoni but they internally identify (align) themselves with Tswana. This is typical of deaf children who might be natively (externally, ethnically) identified as Sotho but internally (individually) identify themselves with Zambian Sign Language (ZSL) (Skutnabb-Kanga, 1984).

Origin criterion

Owing to the weaknesses of viewing our mother tongue as a native language, other scholars have defined ‘mother tongue’ as the language we were first exposed to, regardless of whether that language is our native language or not. This definition entails that, for example, if a child’s parents are French but they use Swahili as a medium of communication with their child in their home, the child will end up being proficient in Swahili and not French. This makes Swahili the child’s first language (L1) and, therefore, its ‘mother tongue’. Consequently, from the perspective of this criterion, your mother tongue is also known as your L1 (Skutnabb-Kanga, 1984; Wadhaugh, 1996/2006). This definition of mother tongue is intellectually logical but at variance with one that views a mother tongue as one’s native language.

While it makes sense that children can be first exposed to any language other than that of their native land such that their first-acquired language becomes their mother tongue, the criterion comes with serious repercussions especially in areas of cultural heritage in an individual. The view robs an individual of his native culture and identity. It is like producing linguistic identity exiles in individuals: such people neither identify with their native language nor the first language which they are calling their ‘mother tongue’. They are linguistically lukewarm.

Competence criterion

From this angle, a mother tongue is defined as the language that one knows best (Malmkjaer, 1991; Crystal, 1991). It does not matter whether that language is native or not. As long as someone knows it best, it is seen as their mother tongue. This is a rather crude way of defining a mother tongue because it excludes considerations for native language and one’s first language but gives priority to fluency and general mastery of language. Does it mean that if you are Ndebele by ethnicity but know English best then English is your mother tongue? Luckily like I will explain later, these definitions mostly overlap. For example, more often than never, an individual’s native language tends to also be the language they learnt first (making it a first language), use quite often and are also competent in (Skutnabb-Kanga, 1984; Crystal, 1991).

Function criterion

The last criterion that is used to define a mother tongue is that of function and has to do with language use. In some societies, a mother tongue is defined as the language that one uses the most in various spaces, be they formal or informal spaces like at home, church, work or the market. Here, mother tongue is also known as ‘dominant language’.

This perspective is also never short of weaknesses because language use is sometimes determined by law and needs of both the individual and society. We sometimes use a particular language more than the other because of the socio-political and socio-economic contexts we find ourselves in (Skutnabb-Kanga, 1984). For example, if a Francophone tourist spends some years in Zambia (an Anglophone country) during which he uses English which he learnt as a second language back in his country, should we say that English is his mother tongue because he uses it more often in Zambia?

From the definitions of mother tongue above, we can draw a number of general insights about the notion of ‘mother tongue’. Firstly, in societies where the majority speak a particular mother tongue (e.g. in a society where most speakers use Lozi as mother tongue), the speakers not only learn first their mother tongue but also identify, know and use it the most. In such cases, all of the above definitions of mother tongue become applicable.

Secondly, in an event that the minority speakers of a language live or work in a setting where a different language is spoken by the majority, the language of the majority usually becomes the most used language by the outnumbered minority in most formal and sometimes informal domains. In this case, defining a mother tongue by function becomes somehow unfair because outnumbered speakers’ right to use their mother tongue is trampled upon by linguistic power struggles (Skutnabb-Kanga, 1984).

Thirdly, where a child acquires their education through the medium of language spoken by the majority, such a child habitually ends up knowing the majority language better. Consequently, it becomes unfair to define such a child’s mother tongue on the basis of competence. Fourthly, in an event that one’s parents or grandparents long lost their native language (due to, say, relocations) such that their children are taught a different language, it is not fair to define the children’s ‘mother tongue’ on the basis of origin and/or external identification. Instead, defining mother tongue using the criterion of internal identification explained above would be ideal.

Lastly, what really happens to deaf children born to hearing parents? While we can externally identify the mother tongue of deaf kids as that of their parents’ native language, deaf children identify themselves more with sign language (e.g. Zambian Sign Language – ZSL; and American Sign Language – ASL) and would be competent in a particular SL but not in the native language of their parents. Well, I am sure the next time someone asks you what your mother tongue is, they need to contextualise their question.

Next Friday, I will be looking at something called ‘hypnopaedia’ – our ability to learn a language while asleep. Is it possible? Cognitive linguistics will answer the question.

The author is a systemic functional linguist and Special Research Fellow (PhD) at the University of the Western Cape, South Africa. His other research fields include neurolinguistics, forensic linguistics, psycholinguistics, semiotics, corpus linguistics, cognitive linguistics, African languages and literature. He has also taught language at UNZA. Contact: hmksettings@rocketmail.com; 0,WhatsApp: +260 956 315380.

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