How to Define Mother Tongue
FINVERBUS Translations | APR. 11, 2014, 3:30 PM
Terms that frequently get tossed around in the language industry are “native language” and “mother tongue”. Yet what exactly do these terms imply? For some, a mother tongue is exactly that: the language your mother spoke when you were growing up and thus, the language you are expected to speak most fluently. There are several flaws to this idea, not the least of which is the emphasis on the mother as the main caregiver. For example, if a boy grows up in a country that is not his mother’s and she is the only one speaking to him in that language, will hers really be the language that he feels most comfortable speaking? And what about families where mothers and fathers each speak their own language to children, does the mother’s language prevail?
This has led some scholars to define one’s native tongue as the language of the region where a child grows up. Now, we all know of situations where more than one language is spoken in a single region (or even in a single household). And what of young people who live in two or more countries over the course of their childhood? In cases such as these, linguists generally agree on calling someone a polyglot or simply multilingual.
This raises the question of whether or not polyglots can express themselves equally well in several languages. What does this mean when it comes to translating? The general rule of thumb in the translation industry is that a language professional should always translate into her mother tongue. A glance at a dictionary and grammar book reveals the myriad nuances of language that only native translators master both verbally and in writing.
Considering the meaning of the term “mother tongue”, one of the knotty questions in today’s multicultural environments is whether or not you can have more than one. When children grow up in multilingual environment and learn more than one language from an early age, it might not be so easy to draw the line between the first and second language—or even a third! In these cases, the first language you learn at school might be an important indication of which language you best express yourself in both verbally and in writing: the language that you can thus call your mother tongue.