1. Forum
  2. >
  3. Topic: Duolingo
  4. >
  5. What is my mother tongue?


What is my mother tongue?

I know this seems like a weird question because your mother tongue is the language you grew up speaking right?

Well you see, I grew up in the New England and from age 1-4 I was only spoken to in Spanish. When I entered Elementary School at the age of 5 I was put into ESL (English as a second language) classes until the age of 10 because I would say certain things to my teachers in Spanish, when obviously they couldn't speak a word of it.

I'm 23 now and although my Spanish is advanced, I know that my English surpasses my Spanish now. This is obviously from living an English speaking country my entire life, going to school here, and having monolingual English speaking friends.

So basically, I learned Spanish for the first 4 years of my life, then was smacked in the face super hard with English to the point where it got better than my Spanish by the time I was in Middle School.

Does that make English my mother tongue? Or is Spanish my mother tongue? Does your mother tongue have to be your most fluent language from an early age? Or just simply your first language, even if it's not as advanced as the second?

I apologize if I sound confusing at the moment I just would like to know what I should consider my mother/native tongue when people ask me.

January 21, 2015



Maybe Both of them


In which language do you think?


That's pretty weird. I'm Dutch and my Dutch is better than my English, but I follow a bilingual course at school. So sometimes I think in English and sometimes I think in Dutch. Most of the time it depends on what expression better suits my thoughts and precise emotions/thinkings.


You can say you were raised bilingually with both Spanish and English.

Or, since your first four years were Spanish-only, you can say your mother tongue is Spanish. I've always understood "mother tongue" to refer to the language you spoke first.

Or you can sidestep the question a little and say that you were raised speaking Spanish but your English has now surpassed it, or just say that you speak both Spanish and English.

It's really up to you how you choose to self-identify.


Thanks for the response! That makes sense. I guess I was just confused as to whether or not I should mention the whole backstory or just simply choose 1 and go with that.


until I was three years old I only spoke French, but then my family moved to Israel, and I had to learn Hebrew. Even though I only speak French at home with my family, my Hebrew is way better than my French, so I consider both of these languages my mother tongue.


I am in the same boat as you. My parents always spoke to me in Persian, because well that is what we are, Persian. But I was born and raised in the USA. I grew up watching Disney films and shows like Sesame Street. There have been times in my life when my english was not strong compared to my Persian, but as I grew older my English did become superior. I am bilingual and that is due to my environment. Now I feel like I am equally fluent in both languages. I don't feel like I have a mother tongue to be honest. But I can say that Persian is my ancestral language. But yeah, in the end I consider myself to be bilingual. I can not really say I have a mother tongue.


Agreed with Taloua. For people (like yourself) who have lived complicated linguistic lives, it is the question itself that's at fault, not your difficulty in giving a one-word answer.


Well, it is said that a small child up to a certain age can still learn a new language like a mother tongue (It is the time, when your brain is hardwired to learn a language). So I would say you are bilingual: you grew up with 2 mother tongues.


I will try to analyse you speaking biography in lingustic terminology. Tell me if that is interesting to you. So your main language is English which would be called your L since it was the second language that you learned. Your L1 is Spanish. I have recently read a paper on sequential bilinguals whose L2 is more proficient than their L1, you are not alone. So if you want to call one language your native language (I dislike the term mother tongue) I do suppose it is Spanish but your main language (I am not quite sure if this word exists in the English discourse but I think it is the most appropriate term for you) is English. Would that fit for you? I am just guessing since I can not tell you what you have to call you native language or your mother tongue. That is just my estimation.


I'm also confused about which is my mother/native language. I was born in Hungary and only spoke Hungarian until I was about 2, at which time I was adopted. My parents spoke Hungarian decently, but were English, and so used English at home. I quickly lost Hungarian and when I moved to England at 4 1/2 I knew no Hungarian - I couldn't read, write, speak or comprehend it (angry face). I am now pretty fluent in Hungarian, having been learning it for 4 years, but am still unsure about which language to call my native language: Is it the language I spoke for the first few years of my life, and was effectively "born with" (Hungarian), or the language I speak fluently now, and have spoken fluently for about 13 years (English)?


Your mother tongue will the one that you normally use to converse at home. Are all your interactions at home in Spanish or English?


What's funny about that is that I speak to my father in Spanish (he speaks very poor English), my sister in English (she's 2 years younger than me and went through the same thing), and my mother in both Spanish & English. (If my dad is present I'll speak to her in Spanish, if she's alone or with my sister I speak English to her). If I visit my grandparents I speak Spanish.. If I visit my aunts or uncles it really depends. I speak to my fathers siblings in Spanish and my mothers siblings in English. (Her siblings can speak both they are just more Americanized and came to the USA between the ages of 5-10. While my father and his siblings came to the USA between the ages of 15- early 20s!)


Well, in some cases the parents can come from different language backgrounds and the kids grow up in a bilingual environment. In your case, it seems one generation back, the mother tongue would have been Spanish. Now since you are all in an English speaking environment, future generations will be English.


though it doesn't have to be that way. you can raise any children you have to be bilingual so that they too can have two mother tongues. You will be doing them a great service if you make sure that the future generations won't just be English.


Hmm..it's a personal choice and may sometimes seem like a choice a parent is forcing on their kids (especially, if they find everyone outside just uses one language).


Of course it is a personal choice. I'm some stranger on the interwebz, I can't expect to force anyone to do anything. That said, it's not necessarily a malicious forcing. If (if you chose to do it this way) Spanish is the only thing spoken in the home, but a child gets English everywhere else, the child will end up bilingual without ever knowing that the parents "forced" the language upon them. Even if one parent only did Spanish in the home and the other spoke English, the results would be similar.


I would call that bilingual.


I know the feeling. :) I grew up (in Belgium) with my mother speaking English to me, and everyone else Flemish/Dutch. I know my Dutch is better, so I mostly don't mention English. :p


Your English on here is good, why do you not mention it?


Because people exspect to much, for example my (English) teachers at school. :)


If someone asks you I would say 'I speak both English and Spanish, but my English is better.' That's what I would say, though. I think you should find what's more comfortable for you. My friend is from India and she speaks English to me and her other friends, but she speaks whatever Indian language she learned (there are many) at home. So just say you are fluent in both English and Spanish (which, in your case, is true). Hope this helped!


Your Mother Tongue is the first language that you spoke as a child; Spanish in your case. For people who can no longer speak their 1st language, their second language is considered their mother tongue.


Hey I moved to New England when I was 5 and was also put in ESL classes until 6th grade even though my English was better than my Spanish. Anyways, I look at it this way, since i spoke Spanish first but speak better English I say both are my mother tongue.


you have two native languages. that's really cool. I agree that you can say that you are bilingual and that you have two native languages.


Not to mention the lost mother tongue of taĆ­no.


I have a similar situation, being born in Puerto Rico but moving to the mainland USA when I was 8 years old. I went through long periods in my youth speaking only English, so I know that at this point English is the default language in my brain (however, Spanish sometimes comes up too). My Spanish is now pretty good but only because I have actively studied all aspects of the language in an effort to make it as good as my English.

When people ask me, I just say that I have two "mother tongues".


I have the same problem. My first language was Italian; I grew up speaking the Florentine dialect, so my standard Italian is not always gramaticallly correct. However, my father is American and I learned English at 2 years old ( I started speaking Italian at nine months). I can express myself better in English because I went/go to school in the US and was able to focus more on that. However, in all instances, I list my mother tongue as Italian, because I grew up speaking it. Also, I wasn't too familiar with English games and culture when I went into school, and therefore was made fun of. So, as I am more familiar with Italian culture and first spoke in Italian, I consider that to be my mother tongue. Hope this helps, or at least makes you realize that you are not alone! ;)


I have always had this same thought! My first language was Armenian and it was my only language before I started school. I'm born and raised in the USA so my English is definitely better than my Armenian but I still understand it 100% and speak it fairly well. The way I think of it is that English is my native tongue, because I've lived in an English speaking country my entire life but Armenian is my mother tongue because it's who I am and my familial background. But at the end of the day I consider myself bilingual :)

Learn a language in just 5 minutes a day. For free.