Mother tongue refers to the language that a speaker acquires in childhood through uncontrolled learning processes. Targeted teaching is not required for this. The child’s parents and other immediate caregivers make a significant contribution to language development. In linguistics today, the term first language is preferred.
Mother tongue is the first language a child learns. The term comes from the Latin “lingua materna”, which literally means “language of the mother”. This emphasises that the actual acquisition of language begins in the womb. Some people even have more than one mother tongue, which they are taught by their parents; this is referred to as first language(s). The term “native language” is often used in linguistics.
Importance of the mother tongue
The mother tongue is closely linked to the development of one’s own identity. It is the language in which children develop a sense of self and learn values, norms and rules that are an expression of their cultural background. Mother tongue triggers the most emotions and is also important for belonging to a group. It is also an indispensable basis for the acquisition of other languages.
First language acquisition
There are different approaches to explaining how children develop language. Some psychologists and linguists believe that children have innate brain structures that actively support language development. From about the 23rd week of pregnancy, unborn babies in the womb can perceive sounds in their environment. A decisive factor in the acquisition of the mother tongue is early and constant contact with the language, for example when playing, reading stories or also through radio and television. Only in this way do the sounds and grammatical structures become so deeply imprinted that the child masters the language naturally.
Multilingualism or bilingualism
Bilingualism refers to a person’s ability to speak two or more languages. This circumstance is usually promoted when the parents speak different mother tongues. If a child is confronted with two languages in parallel right after birth until about the age of three, it can acquire both as first languages. In this case, one speaks of “bilingual first language acquisition”.
The right to a mother tongue
The mother tongue is a cultural human right, which is now also recognised in Germany. The right to speak one’s mother tongue or another language is due to the individual freedom of each person.
The most spoken mother tongues worldwide
Although English is the most widely spoken language in the world with approximately 1.2 billion speakers, the most native speakers of any language (921 million) are found in Mandarin Chinese. The second most native speakers are Spanish (463 million). English follows with around 370 million native speakers.
The top 5 most common mother tongues
FAQ: More questions about mother tongue
What does mother tongue mean?
Mother tongue is the language that a child learns in early childhood from their family and other caregivers and primarily uses.
Can you have two mother tongues?
Yes. When children grow up with two languages and have roughly equal command of them, they are called bilingual. The term comes from Latin and means “two languages”. Mostly, children of parents with different mother tongues grow up bilingual.
Can you forget your mother tongue?
If the acquisition of a language is interrupted, for example because children move with their family to a new country, children can actually unlearn the language they grew up with. In adulthood, however, it is no longer possible to forget a fully acquired language.
Why is it called mother tongue and not father tongue?
The term mother tongue is derived from the Latin “lingua materna”. This is based on the idea that language is already shaped in the womb. After birth, language acquisition is mediated by close caregivers such as a mother, father or grandparents.
What is the difference between mother tongue and first language?
The terms mother tongue and first language are used synonymously. Strictly speaking, however, the first language a child learns is not necessarily the language of the mother. The term first language is more precise and means the language that a child learns first and intuitively.
When is a language the mother tongue?
The mother tongue is acquired in a private, social environment and not first learned at school.
What level is the mother tongue?
Language level C2 is considered a native speaker level. At this level of competence, a person can effortlessly understand virtually everything they read or hear.
Can you learn a foreign language like your mother tongue?
After puberty, certain brain regions that are important for learning a foreign language are mature in their development. They lose their plasticity and can then no longer process new information so flexibly. From then on, it becomes difficult to master a second language perfectly.
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