Katy was born in London, and she speaks English ever since before she started to learn other Languages, for example Japanese, Thai, and she can speak Japanese and Thai fluently and well. She speaks these three languages in her daily life.
Now, when she wants to tell people about her mother tongue, can she say,
"My mother tongues are English, Japanese and Thai"?
Or "My mother tongue is English and my second langangues are Japanese and Thai"?

  • 3
    This issue has been addressed on ELU Is “mother tongue” exactly the same as “native language”?, but I wouldn't think many native speakers recognize a clear distinction between the two. Having said that, if I were completely bilingual, I think I'd rather claim two native languages. Since you can only really have one female parent, it just seems weird to speak of having two mother tongues. You're normally just fluent in any others. Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 16:01
  • 4
    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it is not a question about learning the English language, rather, the semantics of "mother tongue". This might be better placed on the English SE site.
    – JMB
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 16:02
  • 3
    @JMB: It depends how you look at it. Assuming one does speak more than one language completely fluently (with no accent, learned at an early age, and accustomed to thinking in that language), there's a perfectly valid usage question here (can you use mother tongue in the plural to describe your linguistic proficiency?). Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 16:05
  • 2
    @kitty It would take a serious offense to be banned from a stack exchange site. Lots of useful contributors ask questions that are closed as off-topic.
    – DJMcMayhem
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 16:40
  • 1
    I don't think this should be closed because it's about semantics, although maybe it could be closed because the answer could be found in a dictionary. Personally, if a child grows up in a home where two (or more) languages are spoken roughly equally, I have no problem with that person saying, "I have two mother tongues: German and French."
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 12, 2015 at 17:11

3 Answers 3


Your mother tongue, also known as first language or native language, is the language you grow up speaking at home. Most people have one native language and may acquire second languages at various levels of fluency.

A first language (also native language, mother tongue, arterial language, or L1) is the language or are the languages a person has learned from birth or within the critical period, or that a person speaks the best and so is often the basis for sociolinguistic identity[citation needed]. In some countries, the terms native language or mother tongue refer to the language of one's ethnic group rather than one's first language. Children brought up speaking more than one language can have more than one native language, and be bilingual.

By contrast, a second language is any language that one speaks other than one's first language. [emphasis added]

There are several principles that separate a "native language" from a second language:

The article titled “The Native Speaker: An Achievable Model?” published by the Asian EFL Journal states that there are six general principles that relate to the definition of "native speaker". These principles, according to the study, are typically accepted by language experts across the scientific field. A native speaker is defined according to the guidelines that:

  1. The individual acquired the language in early childhood
  2. The individual has intuitive knowledge of the language
  3. The individual is able to produce fluent, spontaneous discourse
  4. The individual is competent in communication
  5. The individual identifies with or is identified by a language community
  6. The individual does have a dialect accent (include official dialect)

It's slightly ambiguous from your question but I'm going to assume that Katy learned Japanese and Thai much later on than she learned English.

In your example, Katy's native language (mother tongue) is English and she has two second languages that she is fluent in, Japanese and Thai. This must be the case as English is the only language that meets all six of the above requirements.

For the purposes of your example, this is your answer, and no other information is necessary, since Katy did not learn the other two languages as a child.

As noted in the Wikipedia article, it is possible, should a child have bilingual parents, for that child to grow up speaking more than one language, and, thus have multiple "mother tongues".

Sometimes the term mother tongue or mother language is used for the language that a person learned as a child at home (usually from their parents). Children growing up in bilingual homes can, according to this definition, have more than one mother tongue or native language.

For example, many people in Quebec, Canada speak both French and English:

A considerable number of Quebec residents consider themselves to be bilingual in French and English. In Quebec, about 42.6 percent of the population (3,328,725 people) report knowing both languages; this is the highest proportion of bilinguals of any Canadian province

If a couple has a child and chooses to speak both English and French in the home, that child would have two native languages.

Some regions have specific definitions for the term "mother tongue" that does not agree with what has been stated above, and are worth mentioning:

In the context of population censuses conducted on the Canadian population, Statistics Canada defines mother tongue as "the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood by the individual at the time of the census."

So this definition allows for only one "mother tongue".

Additionally, some groups refer to their ethnic group's language which they may or may not know as their "mother tongue":

In some countries, such as Kenya, India, and various East Asian countries, "mother language" or "native language" is used to indicate the language of one's ethnic group, in both common and journalistic parlance (e.g. "I have no apologies for not learning my mother tongue"), rather than one's first language.

Also, there is no requirement that a person still speak their "mother tongue" or be literate in it:

It is quite possible that the first language learned is no longer a speaker's dominant language. This includes young immigrant children, whose families have moved to a new linguistic environment, as well as people who learned their mother tongue as a young child at home (rather than the language of the majority of the community), who may have lost, in part or in totality, the language they first acquired (see language attrition).

As an example, say a child (an orphan) was born in Russia and lived there until the age of five, speaking only Russian. At that point, the child was adopted by American parents and stopped speaking Russian entirely, switching to English, and no longer understands Russian at all.

I'd argue the child's "mother tongue" is Russian but they are a native speaker of English.

Some other interesting tidbits from the article:

According to Ivan Illich [an Austrian philosopher and Roman Catholic priest], the term "mother tongue" was first used by Catholic monks to designate a particular language they used, instead of Latin, when they are "speaking from the pulpit". That is, the "holy mother the Church" introduced this term and colonies inherited it from the Christianity as a part of their colonial legacy, thanks to the effort made by foreign missionaries in the transitional period of switching over from 18th-century Mercantile Capitalism to 19th-century Industrial Capitalism in India.

This is important as it shows the general use of "mother" as in "motherland", or the "land of one's birth" so "mother tongue" is the "language of one's birth". Not specifically relating to the language that only your mother speaks, excluding whatever (possibly different) language your father might speak.

  • I support the point that an individual can have more than one mother tongue. However, I'd like to point out that an individual needs to have a good command of those additional languages (at some point in their life). In many immigrant families where parents speak multiple languages, often only one language becomes dominant. Hence children become proficient only in that language. If they learn bits of other languages from their parents. Those extra bits may not qualify for a second mother tongue status.
    – Vitaly
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 18:08
  • @Vitaly some of the definitions of the term (mentioned in my answer) do not support the concept that a person must be fluent in their mother tongue.
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 18:13

I think the native language or the mother tongue is something we learn by birth or typically in the period we start learning the language for the very first time. First language, native, mother tongue etc. are synonyms.

In other words, mother tongue is the language learned with no formal lessons; the language that the mother (and so almost everyone in home) uses to convince, advise, request her baby.

The baby may grow and start learning other languages and become polyglot but then, I don't think those all languages fall under 'mother tongue'.

If Katy is born to English parents living in London, her mother tongue is English.

So, no matter how fluent/skilled I become in English, English will never be my mother tongue or First Language.

  • 3
    Yes... but I have friends who are from different countries. The man is Polish and the woman is American. They make a decision to speak to their children in both Polish and English, so their kids grow up speaking both languages... so the children have two native tongues.
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 6:57
  • @Catija In that case, how do parents communicate with each other? Polish? English? That becomes a common language and so the mother tongue I think.
    – Maulik V
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 7:00
  • It depends on the couple... some couples, say in Montreal, Canada, both speak French and English... they may decide that on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, they will speak in the household in French and on the remainder of the days, they will speak in English... There are many possibilities, the fact remains, it's perfectly possible to have more than one mother tongue.
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 7:05
  • This is turning more into 'cultural' thing then! :) @Catija And, if we look further into that, mother tongue, as the term itself says, would be something what the mother speaks. I mean tht's how this word must have been coined!
    – Maulik V
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 7:17
  • I don't think there's any connection to "mother" - the person and "mother tongue" other than the word itself. "Mother can often be used to mean "of birth", and not related to a parent at all. Similar word "motherland"... the land of your birth and to which you have an emotional connection... If your assertion were correct, it would mean the country your mother was born in... which would likely be the same one you were born in but not necessarily.
    – Catija
    Commented Aug 24, 2015 at 8:01

Well, this is a wrong approach. I would distinguish between "mother tongue" and first language. What makes you a native speaker is having an L1. And no doubt many individuals in this world can have more than one L1 that they would have learned or acquired since they were little. Where can we find those individuals? In bilingual communities, those who speak a minority language. In those situations they would have the minority language as their mother tongue and first language, and will have acquired the dominant language from the time they were little, because that language is everywhere in their context. Therefore, it is not at exceptional to be a native speaker in two languages.

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