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What Is a First Language?

By Karize Uy
Updated May 23, 2024
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The term “first language” refers to the language a person is most familiar with and most accustomed to speaking. Usually, it is the language that a person hears and eventually learns in the following years after he was born. The term is largely differentiated from other terms such as the “mother tongue,” as this generally refers to the language of a collective group, not of a person. First language is also distinguished from the “second language,” pertaining to the language a person speaks less fluently.

Many linguists and early childhood educators see the acquisition and learning of language as a skill that needs to be developed over time, in contrast to it being innate and instinctive. This principle can be seen in the acquisition of a first language, as the child needs to constantly hear it from his surroundings, such as from his parents at home. After a certain period of imitating the sounds, the child will begin to associate the words with the object they are pertaining, eventually learning to string multiple words into phrases and sentences according to the syntax of that specific language. When the child has learned to speak his first language in the “crucial years,” probably before age 6, he is more likely to retain the language for the rest of his life, even when he has learned other languages or migrated to another country.

Children may often have just one first language, but this is not always so, especially in countries that take in more than two languages, such as in India, Singapore, and Hong Kong. When a child has two or more first languages, he is identified as “bilingual” or a “multilingual.” Bilingual parents are also more likely to pass down their fluency of two languages to their children. Previous studies asserted that children who are being taught two languages might become confused, but more recent studies have shown that bilingual children have better thinking processes in things like classifying and organizing objects. They can also have better social skills, as along with language, the child will also learn non-verbal cues and decorum associated with the language.

A person’s first language reveals a lot about his identity and his upbringing, especially when his first language is not the “native language” of his home country. For example, a Filipino child who speaks English more fluently may have been born in an upper-to-middle class family, have been exposed to a more Western culture, and may socialize with other middle-class families. In many occasions, a person who has first and second languages has a tendency to mix the two languages together while speaking, an action called “code mixing.”

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Discussion Comments

By bythewell — On Aug 07, 2014

@croydon - I don't really like the idea of people trying to give their children too many advantages like this. If they happen to be multicultural with different languages in their history, that's one thing, and if they live in a country that has multiple languages, it's good for them to learn them.

But you don't know what language children will want to speak when they grow old enough to choose, or if they will want to speak anything else at all.

By croydon — On Aug 07, 2014

@Mor - From what I've heard the most crucial thing you can do for your child's language learning abilities is just expose them to different languages when they are young, and not necessarily get them to learn one or the other. They will probably start to pick up some of the languages they hear, but more importantly, they will be much more able to make the necessary sounds later in life.

Apparently people in New Zealand are much better at learning Japanese than the average English speaker because they get exposed to so much Maori as they grow up, and Maori and Japanese have a lot of sounds in common.

If you can't hear the subtle differences in sound and tone that a native speaker hears, then it's always going to be that much harder to pick up the language. Even if you never learn a word, just hearing the sounds as a kid can help.

By Mor — On Aug 06, 2014

From what I've heard a bilingual person does have some advantages in cognitive abilities, but might also have some disadvantages in language proficiency. It's not really that they become confused so much as that they simply didn't have the time to learn as much of each language as someone who only had to learn one language.

The difference is really only going to be noticeable if they work in a field where they need to have a deep understanding of language, like being a journalist, and even then the difference isn't going to be that big of a deal. But you can't expect anyone to learn twice as much information in the same time period as someone learning one language and not fall behind on something.

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