Mother tongue, first language, native language or dominant language?


What term should we use when talking about the first language we acquired and learned? Mother tongue is not ideal for many reasons.
Have you ever wondered what is the difference between mother tongue, first language (L1), dominant language etc., and what is the correct term to use? 


Mother tongue and L1

About the origin of the term mother tongue

“The origin of the term mother tongue harks back to the notion that linguistic skills of a child are honed by the mother and therefore the language spoken by the mother would be the primary language that the child would learn.” However, this type of culture-specific notion is a misnomer. The term was 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 of 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.” (cfr. wikipedia)


In one sense, we all have a mother tongue as we all have only one "mother", the one that uses her language with us. Whether this is now the birth mother, the biological mother or adoptive mother, the most important aspect is that it is the person that interacts with us from early on and transmits her language to us.
So, this can mean that the language our mother talked to us is automatically our mother tongue. But what about the father tongue? Or caregiver tongue, should someone else raise us?

The term of mother tongue refers historically speaking to a traditional/conventional family situation where the mother is the person who transmits the language to the child and is the main provider for input in that language for the children in their first years. This scenario is not very accurate anymore, surely not in today's world where fathers and other care givers are involved in providing input in the home language too, as well as for birth mothers, or adoptive mothers for example.

A friend of mine was adopted when she was 2 and grew up in a Dutch family: would her mother tongue be Swahili because her biological mother was talking Swahili to her – and which she recognized when exposed to it as a teenager – or would it be Dutch, the language the mother who adopted her talked to her daily?

Usually, mother tongue – or father tongue to be politically correct! –  defines the first language we were exposed to, chronologically speaking, our L1, the first language we understand and speak. It's the language we grow up with or that our parents (or caregivers) speak with us. – And usually people tend to speak this language for a long time.

If we want to define the chronologically first language we acquired, the term first language can seem more appropriate.

But what happens if we are exposed to two or more languages in our family because our parents and/or caregivers speak different languages with us and among them?

We can have multiple "first languages" or L1's. Some suggested to label them as La, Lb etc., but whatever number or letter we add to the "L" (language) this label always suggests some kind of hierarchy between the languages. Which language "deserves" to be "a" or "1". This only leads to power struggles that should be avoided when transmitting our languages to our children.

Talking about L1, L2, or La, Lb etc. only makes sense, if the languages are acquired or learned successively*, i.e. not simultaneously.

*Simultaneous bilinguals or multilinguals are exposed to more than one (or two) languages since day one. Successive bilinguals or multilinguals, are those who add other languages after having acquired the first language(s).

I personally prefer using the term of family languages or home languages, considering the (societal) context the language is spoken: one language with one parent, another one with the other parent, an additional language with the caregiver etc..

This not only allows us to avoid any kind of power struggle or hierarchy between the languages, it also makes it easier to distinguish the languages at home from those in the community – if they differ: home languages vs community languages (or daycare / school languages).


My languages

Allow me to share my personal language situation: my parents only spoke German with me and my sister, so German was our home language, but we were exposed to Italian since day one. We didn’t “learn” it in the conventional, academical way, we acquired it by exposure to the language in the community (including children of our age who would just play with us speaking Italian). So Italian counts as our community language, but as our friends and neighbours were part of our daily life and we would switch to Italian when they were at our home – and this happened daily! – I consider Italian as my other home language. Both languages have always been equally important and valuable for me.


Language shift

If I look at the different phases in my life, there were phases where Italian, German or French were dominant languages. In one phase (of almost 6 years) I exclusively spoke Italian and French (and studying Old-French and Old-Provençal made my experience of "frenchness" even more intense!). During this period I had difficulties communicating in German and couldn't form a complete sentence in my parents' language anymore.

Only when this everyday situation changed and I focused more on German and Swiss German, my German improved again and even became as dominant as Italian and French for a short (!) period.

In the following phase, Italian was the main language I spoke and it was the language I chose to speak to my son.

Another switch occurred when English, which is chronologically speaking the fourth language I learned, and that I didn't use regularly between age 20 to 38, became more dominant. I did re-activate and improve it when we moved to the Netherlands and its use increased even more when our children started attending an English school. At the same time I acquired and improved Dutch.

You can watch my video about Language Shift here below.



Dominant language

In the past 15 years, my most dominant languages were German, English and Dutch, with Italian (the language that still feels like the closest to my heart!), French and Swiss German in the "background", which means that they are not used daily and adding Spanish to the picture which I have a great passive knowledge in but where I'm working on the verbal fluency).

They are most dominant in terms of me using them on a daily basis, as well as doing most reading and writing in these languages. But English and Dutch are chronologically speaking my 4th and 6th language, that I learned and acquired at different stages of my life (one at 11 yo, the other at 39yo). Therefore, a dominant language is a language that is most important for us at some point in life. It doesn't need to be our first language, it can be any other language we acquired or learned at any stage.


What about our children’s languages?

From a chronological point of view, Italian and Swiss-German are the "first languages" for all of my children, but only for their first years.

When our twin daughters were 1,5 years old and their secret language had a significant impact on our communication, we decided to only speak German as a family. At that point our children were exposed to German on a daily basis as it was the language my husband and I communicated in (and it was our babysitter's language, and part of our extended family speaks it). We still kept on reading and singing with our children in Swiss-German and Italian.

This language situation changed again when our children started attending the Dutch daycare and then an English school.

Today – I should better say “at the moment”...– our children consider English, German and Dutch as their most important and preferred languages. English is their most dominant language, the one they are most fluent in and where their word use and choice is most accurate and complex. Dutch and German are their second "most dominant" languages for the same reasons.

Our children don’t feel very confident in Swiss-German or Italian at the moment, but I know by my own experience that this can change if the linguistic situation changes again or if they just decide to speak them more often.

In multilingual families, the linguistic situation within the family and social context changes constantly.


So, no first language or mother tongue, what about native language?

The first language or mother tongue plays an important role in sociolinguistics, as it is the basis for many people’s sociolinguistic identity. Terms like native language or mother tongue refer to an ethnic group rather than to the chronological first language. This all confuses families and teachers as, usually, one needs to indicate the mother tongue of the children when signing them up for a daycare or school. This is why I always recommend to indicate also the languages that our children are most exposed to, most fluent and confident in at the moment... 


Native speakers are considered to be “authority on their given language due to their natural acquisition process regarding the language, versus having learned the language later in life”.

By focussing on the natural acquisition process, my personal native languages would be German, Italian, Swiss-German and Dutch because I did acquire them naturally, i.e. without "studying" them. I did not “learn” them in a formal setting. I imitated speakers, copied sentences and became fluent by "trial and error". I then learnt how to read and write German, Italian and Dutch – for Swiss-German not being a written language, this wasn't possible.

The fact that someone is a native speaker because he or she acquired the language at an early stage, may be qualifying him or her as a fluent speaker (reader and writer), and it might indicate the absence of any foreign accent – but we all have accents...

Fact is, it should not matter when we acquired or learned the language and in what setting.

We all can acquire a language in a “natural” way also at a later stage of our life.


If we nurture the language, learn the different meanings of words, form longer sentences, find out what register to use in different settings, learn the semantics of words, pragmatics and so much more, when we achieve a high level of fluency, accuracy and complexity in the language, this language can become our most dominant one.

And if any of our additional languages becomes our most dominant language, our first language or mother tongue can become a secondary language (and sometimes even be lost; eg. language attrition).

In his lecture “English and Welsh” in 1955, J.R.R. Tolkien distinguishes the native tongue from the cradle tongue. The cradle tongue being the language we learn during early childhood and the native tongue “may be different, possibly determined by an inherited linguistic taste, and may later in life be discovered by a strong emotional affinity to a specific dialect (Tolkien confessed to such an affinity to the Middle English of the West Midlands in particular)”  (pdf of “English and Welsh” by J.R.R. Tolkien)

We each have our own personal linguistic potential: we each have a native language. But that is not the language that we speak, our cradle-tongue, the first-learned. Linguistically we all wear ready-made clothes, and our native language comes seldom to expression, save perhaps by pulling at the ready-made till it sits a little easier. But though it may be buried, it is never wholly extinguished, and contact with other languages may stir it deeply.

My main chief here is to emphasize the difference between the first-learned language, the language of custom, and an individual’s native language, his inherent linguistic predilections: not to deny that he will share many of these with others of his community. He will share them, no doubt, in proportion as he shares other elements in his make-up. ( “English and Welsh” by J.R.R. Tolkien, p.18)


The term of "native speaker" should anyways be avoided as it has "mud on its face", like Jean-Marc Dewaele, Thomas H Bak and Lourdes Ortega mention in their article. ( I mention this in the video here below)

There is so much to say (and write) about this topic! One could add the term of heritage language, which is often misunderstood as a synonym of mother language/tongue... But I'll stop here. I invite you though to watch my video about these different terms and how we can understand and use them:





The predilection of a language is more important than the chronological place it has in our language acquisition and learning history. (Ute Limacher-Riebold)



For me, personally, the language I prefer speaking and that is closest to my heart and I’m more spontaneous in, is not the language my parents transmitted to me during the first period of my life.

– What about you?

– Do you (still) prefer speaking the first language you learnt – chronologically speaking –, or is another language more important for you right now?



Please read my other post about How to portray, feel and explain language use for a multilingual.







To quote this post using the APA style (please insert the date indicated here below as it refers to the latest update of the post!):
Limacher-Riebold, U. (2021, December 22). Mother-tongue, first language, native language or dominant language?. Retrieved from







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  3. Hi. I enjoyed your article, Ute. I am very much like you. I was born in Ghana, and my family is from there. I was brought to the US at 5 years old. I started learning English like when I was 3,4. But, at 5 years old, I still barely understood english. But, I became fluent very quickly after arriving in the USA. My very first language I learned from my family is Twi. Both languages are pretty natural to me, and close to my heart; but ENGLISH is even MORESO close to my heart, and I am more fluent in it. I also love reading english. I THINK in English, and am much more spontaneous, and creative with it. This is all, even though English is my 2nd language I learned.

    Btw, you’re right, the first language is the ‘Parents’ tongue, because the baby always has some contact with the father even in the earliest moments right out of the womb.

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