By Grace Tolu Dogara

Writes from National Museum, Minna

What does mother tongue mean?

The term “mother tongue” refers to a person’s native language — that is, a language learned from birth. It is also called a first language, dominant language, home language, and native tongue (although these terms are not necessarily synonymous).

Mother tongue is a general term for the language of the childhood home, learned ‘at one’s mother’s knee’, often used synonymously with NATIVE LANGUAGE. Mother tongue pertains to the language that you speak since you were young. It is your native language.

When you use the term mother tongue, you refer to the language a person learns from birth. It is the language one was initially exposed to and the first language learnt. However, it also means the speaker’s home and dominant language, not only from acquisition but also from its importance and the speaker’s ability to fully learn its communicative and linguistic features. In language translation terms, it means that the translator is highly capable of translating the text into one’s dominant and primary language.

What is the difference between the mother tongue and the first language?

Technically, there is no difference between first language and mother tongue, as they both pertain to the native language a person speaks. But if you are talking about contexts, you can say that the mother tongue is the language that the person’s ethnic group speaks, which may not be a person’s first language.

When you refer to a person’s first language, it could be a mother tongue, but it could also be the language of choice when the speaker is bilingual or multilingual. Often, the child learns the language that their parents and other caretakers speak. This is a natural language acquisition because it is the only language that the child hears since birth.

In a bilingual household where the parents teach their children to learn their mother tongue simultaneously, which will be their first language. It becomes a choice of which language the child is most comfortable with and fluent in speaking, despite speaking two languages.

Although the implication is usually clear, there is no necessary connection between a child’s use of language and the language of its mother: some children learn the language of a nurse or nanny first; a mother may talk to her child in a language not originally her own.

Use of the Term ‘Mother Tongue’

The general usage of the term ‘mother tongue’…denotes not only the language one learns from one’s mother, but also the speaker’s dominant and home language; i.e. not only the first language according to the time of acquisition, but the first with regard to its importance and the speaker’s ability to master its linguistic and communicative aspects. For example, if a school advertises that all its teachers are native speakers of English, we would most likely complain if we later learned that although the teachers do have some vague childhood memories of the time when they talked to their mothers in English, they, however, grew up in some non-English-speaking country and are fluent in a second language only. Similarly, in translation theory, the claim that one should translate only into one’s mother tongue is in fact a claim that one should only translate into one’s first and dominant language.

“The vagueness of this term has led some researchers to claim…that different connotative meanings of the term ‘mother tongue’ vary according to the intended usage of the word and that differences in understanding the term can have far-reaching and often political consequences.”

Culture and Mother Tongue

This is the language community of the mother tongue, the language spoken in a region, which enables the process of enculturation, the growing of an individual into a particular system of linguistic perception of the world and participation in the centuries-old history of linguistic production.

“Cultural power can…backfire when the choices of those who embrace American-ness in language, accent, dress, or choice of entertainment stir resentment in those who do not. Even if the world celebrates International Mother Language Day held on February 21 each year for cultural diversity and language awareness, there is no denying the fact that minority languages are dying more rapidly. Many factors contribute to this, including globalization, modernization and the blending of international culture.

UNESCO said that, on average, one language disappears every two weeks. A disappearance of a language is the disappearance of an entire intellectual and cultural heritage. According to the 2020 edition of Ethnologue, 2,926 languages are currently endangered, and UNESCO estimates that about 90% of languages worldwide may disappear by 2050.

Besides being a communication device, languages are of cultural significance, and their disappearance means losing unique traditions and knowledge, heritage, and ancestral memories.

It is a way to raise awareness about the language in different areas. A civilization’s foundation is language, which binds people together. It is all right to learn other languages, but it is vital to use your national language whenever possible.

Why is language heritage important to a country?

Language identifies a culture’s ethnic identity; thus, the development, preservation, and research of culture are linked to learning a nation’s language code. Language is the way to represent the formation and expression of a nation’s culture.

Language is a vital factor in a nation’s development. It is the carrier of a country’s intangible heritage, as it shows the nation’s ethno-cultural, mythological, and psychological experiences and ideas.

Aside from the currency, flag, name or geographical boundary, the national language makes a country unique and respectable. Language is the indicator of the country’s national identity and a part of a person’s heritage or a nation.

You can only have a deeper access to a community if you can speak and understand its language. A person has to be fluent in a language to understand the community’s cultural aspects and nuances. When you are fluent in a country’s national language, it makes it easier for the country’s citizens to accept you.

Maintaining the languages of ethnic and cultural groups is critical for the preservation of cultural heritage and identity. Using one’s mother-tongue at home makes it easier for children to be comfortable with their own cultural identity

International Mother Language Day is celebrated every year on February 21 since 1990, after the declaration by the United Nations to recognize the sacrifices of people who lost their life for the sake of their mother-tongue in Bangladesh. To every one of us, mother language is one of the most precious gifts that we have in our lives. Each and every language spoken throughout the globe represents a unique and distinct cultural heritage, melodious songs, colorful environment, tasty food and a healthy society to live in, where people express their feelings and emotions without any hesitation.

The beautiful sounds of which one hears, understand and gets familiar in the mother-tongue since the very beginning, has an important role in shaping our feelings, emotions and thought-processes. The concept of the mother-tongue is a fascinating aspect of language that has transcended generations.

Mother language has a very powerful impact in the early formation of an individual, and maintaining the language equates with preserving a cultural and upholding tradition. Language is how we not only communicate, but how we connect to the growing world around us.

According to Leanne Hinton, “More broadly, the loss of language is part of the loss of whole cultures and knowledge systems, including philosophical systems, oral literary and music traditions, environmental knowledge systems, medical knowledge, and important cultural practices and artistic skills. The world stands to lose an important part of the sum of human knowledge whenever a language stops being used. Just as the human species is putting itself in danger through the destruction of species diversity, so might we be in danger from the destruction of the diversity of knowledge systems.”

Within multilingual societies, maintaining the languages of ethnic and cultural groups is critical for the preservation of cultural heritage and identity. Using one’s mother-tongue at home will make it easier for children to be comfortable with their own cultural identity. A language is more than just a means of communication. It is a repository of a community’s collective history and heritage. It also provides an identity and a focus that binds a community together, which makes individual accomplishments easier.

Preservation of Mother Tongue

On the importance of mother-tongue, Sanjeev Shekhar, an Indian-American living in St Louis, Missouri, says: “It allows children to know their roots and they will be able to pass it on to their children, thus securing their culture for the future generations.”

One of the most effective ways to preserve a language is to continue using it, whether in written or spoken form. We can also buttress the preservation of mother tongue by teaching with it in early education and also in our Secondary Schools which will also enhance the ability of a child to assimilate learning fast.

It is a way to raise awareness about the language in different areas. A civilization’s foundation is language, which binds people together. It is alright to learn other languages, but it is vital to use your national language whenever possible. To preserve our linguistic and cultural diversity, we must encourage the use of mother-tongue as much as possible. Therefore, familiarity with the language is seen as the gateway into the culture because it provides the bridge into understanding the culture by providing access to literature and poetry, original historical texts, religious texts, philosophical works as well as music and art. We should always practice, speak and teach our new generation to speak and communicate with each other in their mother-tongue. We must not and should not underestimate the power of language and work together to promote mutual understanding and cooperation. We should take this opportunity to reaffirm our respect for it as it is a way to raise awareness about the language in different areas.

It is quite disheartening seeing Nigerian parents of the same tongue and culture communicating with their children in English instead of their native/mother tongue. This anomaly has in no little way encouraged our young ones from shying away from our rich and esteemed culture.

Language and culture are so intertwined that one cannot survive without the other. Both of them are sensitive and adopt to prevailing circumstances. Language gives full expression to people’s values and norms. They are dynamic in nature. Languages have to be fully associated with cultural transformations. It is impossible for one to teach language without teaching culture. The impotence of the indigenous language in the educational system of Nigeria is very important.

Although our revised none year UBE curricula may have substantial cultural contents, the English language has become irreplaceable in our national history and development, our culture must be vigorously preserved and promoted by giving due and appropriate attention to our indigenous language in our educational curriculum and planning. The indigenization of English in Nigeria is major process of bringing the relationship between language and culture to the fore. Since the English language is our national language, Nigerian English has been adopted to home use and made applicable to our numerous conveniences, experiences and responsibilities.

In conclusion, let us help each other and celebrate the great diversity of languages and cultures throughout the globe and Nigeria in particular so that we can keep our culture of “Inestimable Value” alive for posterity.

Grace Tolu Dogara writes from National Museum, Minna 

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