What do the phrases “mother tongue” or “first language” mean, exactly? Unsurprisingly, no one is in agreement.
There are a lot of phrases and terms that get used regularly by people – even by translation professionals who should know better, frankly – without being given much thought. These phrases are so well-worn and familiar we’re blind to them, and the problem is that we’re often incorrect as to what they actually mean – or at the very least unaware that there might be some disagreement as to what that is.
Take the phrase “first language” or “mother tongue.” On the one hand you don’t have to be a language translation professional or interpreter to know that it refers to the first language someone learns to speak. Or does it? Here’s where my love for language and all its foibles comes into play, because the phrase can be a lot more complicated than that, and there’s been some mild controversy over its meaning over the years. I may be the only person to get excited by stuff like this, but it is very interesting in a meta way when you discuss how a phrase used commonly in language discussion is so easily debated.
The Cradle Language
For some, “first language” or “mother tongue” refers to one’s cradle language – that is, the language you learn and speak as a child. This can and often is distinct from the language you eventually wind up speaking primarily, or even exclusively, as it does happen that children who grow up speaking one language abandon that language by the time they reach adulthood and have adopted a new language.
The Best Language
For others, the terms generally mean the language that you speak best – are most fluent in. This is not always the first language that you learn, as the world is filled with people who are much better speaking the language they learn second or even third. Sometimes you just click with a certain language even though you didn’t speak it prior to age fifty!
The Tribal Language
In some societies as well, the term “mother tongue” refers specifically to the language of your tribe or people. Again, this may or may not be the first language you learn or the main language that you speak, but it’s the language “of your people” so to speak, and thus is given special significance. You find this very often in India, where the “mother tongue” concept very likely stems from the British dominance and the pervasive use of English there.
That’s the magic of language – a phrase can seem so simple and obvious and yet have so much weight behind it – so much interpretation and disagreement. Someday they say we’ll all speak one language and generally agree on what words mean, and most people see that as a good thing. I’m not so sure I agree. While consistency is useful ... it’s also boring.