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Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Mother tongue vs. family languages

It is carnival time again! This time, I am taking part in the Multilinual Blogging Carnival, hosted by Annabelle of The Piri-Piri Lexicon. If you write about multilingualism, you can take part, too, by submitting your blog to the Carnival site. I haven't written anything about multilingualism for a while, so I am taking this opportunity to write about mother tongues, and whether the term is useful for multilingual families. Thank you, Annabelle for the idea- and for hosting this month's carnival!

What is mother tongue? I have found many definitions of this term. The three of them include: the language that your mother speaks (in Polish we say “jÄ™zyk ojczysty”, your “fatherland’s language), your strongest language, and the language you have learned as a child. It is also often described as the language that you dream in, the language that comes most easily to you.

If you ask a monolingual person this question, the answer will be easy. Since they speak one language, that language meets all the three definitions specified above. However, if you ask a multilingual person what their mother tongue is, the answer will be more complicated.

If I would take into account the language my mother speaks, I would have to say say: “Polish and English, and French and German, and some Dutch and some Italian”. Notice that I don’t speak all the languages my mother does. Now, what about my father? Then I would have to say: “Polish and French and English, and German, and Russian, and some Spanish and some Italian”. I don’t speak all the languages my father speaks, and I speak Dutch, and my father doesn’t.

As a child, I learned 2 languages, Polish and German. Even though I identify more with Polish, and wouldn’t call myself a native speaker of German, I speak it at a much higher level than all other people who learned a language later in life. Are both my mother tongues?

What about the strongest language? Speaking is one thing, but what about writing or reading? Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa describes the experiences with her three children and she asked them what their strongest language was, in terms of speaking, reading and writing. Surprisingly, all children gave different answers when it came to choosing their strongest language. Also, while one preferred using one language to speak, the other was more apt in reading or writing in this language. The answers were never the same. As for me, my Polish is still best, in terms of speaking, reading and writing. My spoken German is just as good, even if I am not as fast of a reader in this language because I haven’t read much in German lately. My written German is fine, even though I prefer not to use it for writing. I read in English just as well as in Polish, and my written English is good enough for blogging and communication purposes. So even though I learned German earlier in life, English is catching up fast due to the fact that I spend a lot of time communicating in this language.

As for the language of dreams, I can dream in Polish, German, English and (surprisingly) French, but never in Dutch. I count (and this includes counting months, weeks, etc.), in Polish .You could ask me how many apples there are on the table, and I’d go: “jeden, dwa, trzy”, and look up to you, and say: “three”.

So, maybe the term “mother tongue” is not very helpful when describing the linguistic situation of multilingual families? I propose the term: “family languages”, which has the benefit of being inclusive of all the languages spoken in the family. For example, my family languages are Polish (because I speak it), German (because my husband speaks it), English (because my mother speaks it and I speak it), French (because my father speaks it and I have French cousins), and yes, Dutch (because while we don’t speak it at home, our children do and they are part of the family).

The term “family languages” instead of “mother tongue” doesn’t make us choose one language that we speak best, and it allows us to include all the languages that we use in a family, no matter what the fluency in speaking, reading, or writing. Also, it includes all siblings who have different language abilities and preferences.

What do you think?

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  1. This makes a lot of sense to me, because I don't know what my kids' mother tongues are! And they tell me that they don't dream in a language...

    1. Michelle, exactly! I don't now that either for my children. ANd yes, we don't always dream in a language, there will be a post about that as well!

  2. Absolutely spot on. This is what we tell people when asked what we speak.
    I personally would find it difficult to say what my own mother tongue is (have grown up with 3)!
    Family languages it is!

    1. Hello, BabelMum, nice to have you here!Thank you for commenting. Sometimes people get confused if you tell them that you speak many languages, and they except you to have one favourite, one strongest language. So, let's say family languages, then, glad you liked this term!

  3. And here I thought my mother tongue situation was complicated! I loved your post and it reminded me how as a child, I'd usually be rattling away in English but when anything mathematical came up, I would revert to French. Thanks for taking part in the carnival!

    1. Hi Cordelia, thanks for commenting and for your kind words. Yes, things are more complicated for us multilinguals, is it? :) thanks for sharing your experiences.


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