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21st Century Bilingualism – Language Terms & FAQ

What is the difference between Mother Tongue, Native Speaker and First Language?


When talking about learning languages, we often hear the terms mother tongue and native speaker used, as well as first language.

Do we use these terms correctly? Are they interchangeable, and what exactly do they mean?

Most people believe that all three terms mean the same and refer to the language a child has been exposed to from birth and grown up with. While all three terms are certainly very similar, there are subtle differences – and just to add to the confusion – in different countries they can mean different things!



According to the Oxford English Dictionary:

Mother tongue refers to ‘the language that a person has grown up speaking from early childhood.’

Native speaker refers to ‘one who speaks a language as their first language’.

First language refers to ‘a person’s native language’.

Here in Singapore, many people assume that only people who are ‘native’ to a certain country can be a native speaker of that country’s main language. Not necessarily! If you are born in Singapore and your first language is English because that is the language that you are most fluent in, then you are a native English speaker.

Mother tongue is a tricky one though, as it is also tends to refer to one’s culture and identity. Your first language might be English for example but your mother tongue could be Hokkien because your parents speak it at home and you spoke it when you were young, though you don’t use it much today so you’re not fluent in it!

Children who are brought up speaking more than one language can have more than one native language. They are bilingual or multilingual. If bilingual, they may speak both languages equally fluently but, if one language is more dominant than the other, that is their first language and the other their second language.

Yes, it can get quite confusing! So enough about terminology. Let’s delve into a little bit of science.


Bilingualism and A Little Bit of Science

Learning multiple languages was not always viewed positively, as we discovered in the introduction to this series about bilingualism. That is, not until evidence to the contrary came about following a more methodical and scientific approach to research on the topic during the early 1960s.

The study of bilingualism, particularly in infants and toddlers, is still a relatively young discipline. But since the 1960s, much more scientific research has been conducted concerning the fields of developmental psychology, cognitive psychology, early childhood education, language disorders and communication sciences, and their relationship to multiple language development.

Parents’ concerns for their children are universal. And when it comes to learning languages, research indicates that the concerns parents expressed 50 years ago about how their children acquire languages are just the same today.

With vast differences between families, communities and cultures around the world, there will always be anomalies, but we now have significant scientific evidence that backs up positive opinions about bilingualism in the early years. By constantly remaining up to date with the latest research and teaching trends, EduGrove promises to maintain the high standards that have helped us create our award-winning curriculum and acclaimed methodology that have helped our students achieve good results!


Frequently Asked Questions

1. We are a multilingual household but we are concerned our child will get confused if he hears too many languages spoken around him at home?

There is no evidence to suggest that children who learn more than one language from infancy get confused. In fact, they appear to be quite ingenious about how they juggle languages. Young children naturally learn to code switch (or code mix), a linguistic term coined by Jan-Petter Blom and John J. Gumperz in the late sixties and early seventies. Code switching happens when speakers alternate between two or more languages in the same conversation. In the case of young children it may occur within the same sentence. This is a perfectly normal process within bilingual development. It is believed to happen for a number of reasons.

Firstly, this is largely due to the fact that children often see adults as their language role models and tend to mimic their language patterns. Secondly, a bilingual child would initially have limited vocabulary, just as a monolingual child did when developing their language skills. The bilingual searches for the right word to use but because they may not have acquired the word as yet, they insert that word from the other language they are learning (assuming they know it). Also, by the time a child reaches 2 years old, research indicates ‘some ability to modulate their language according to the language used by their conversational partner (Genesee, Boivin, & Nicoladis, 1996).

At EduGrove, our teachers are fluent English speakers as well as experts in Mandarin. This allows them to chat with the students’ parents in either language when necessary. Voted by parents as one of the Best Chinese Enrichment Classes, EduGrove’s lessons are strictly conducted in Mandarin. Being fluent in the English language allows our teachers to understand every child no matter their Mandarin proficiency level. This also opens up more streams of knowledge and gives our teachers a bigger pool of materials to research and learn from. Ultimately our goal for our students is for them to be able to inter-switch between both languages easily and with no confusion. Being bilingual is a very important skill and highly sought after especially since the modern work environment is becoming global. 


2. We want to bring our child up bilingual. Should one of us speak only one language to our child at home and the other parent speak only another?

At one time, it was believed that the ‘one parent – one language’ strategy was the best approach. But, although this can work successfully, it may not always be the case. Research has shown that children can successfully learn two languages by hearing them both from one parent (De Houwer, 2007). More important, is the quality and quantity of the language a young child is exposed to. From birth, children are able to “absorb” language skills naturally and easily. So the interactions they have with the people around them, as well as the objects that emit language (television for example) will have a direct affect on the quality of their language acquisition. If you want your child to learn two languages proficiently, then they should have somewhat equivalent exposure to the sounds, vocabulary and grammar of both languages. The more words they hear, the more words they will learn!

Of course, if exposure to only one language at home is possible, say for example only English, then attending a quality Chinese Enrichment Class, on a regular basis, will expose your child to the intonations, pronunciations and rich vocabulary that they will need to flourish in Mandarin.


3. When is the best age for my child to start learning another language?

Although there is some disagreement among researchers about the ‘critical age’ for language acquisition (with some dismissing a critical age altogether), the general consensus is: the earlier the better. During the first two years of life, the development of neurons and synapses in the brain is at its peak. And since neurons and synapses aid memory, a young brain is highly receptive to language learning. We can of course learn languages at any time of life. ‘There may not be a sharp turn for the worse at any point in development, but there is an incremental decline in language learning abilities with age.’ (Birdsong & Molis, 2001; Hakuta, Bialystok, & Wiley, 2003).

Our Mandarin PlayGrove Adult-Accompanied Playgroup programme is one of the few Mandarin centric Playgroups in East Singapore. for your young child. We strive to immerse them in a rich language environment, surrounded by strong language role models, and simultaneously develop their fine and gross motor skills. Our dynamic Chinese Playgroup activities are not only custom designed to stimulate your child’s sensitivity to the intonation and pronunciation of Mandarin words, but they also act as stepping stones for building a positive attitude towards learning, as they progress in their language development.


4. What does it mean when experts say one language is ‘more important’ to a child, even though they are bilingual?

Even when children (or adults) are effectively bilingual, they may feel more ‘at home’ with one language than another, particularly in certain circumstances, in which case, that language will be their ‘dominant’ language. As children develop bilingually, it may be the case that one language appears to be more important and necessary at certain stages in their life.

For example, a child who lives in the UK and grows up speaking English and Mandarin. Environmental and societal conditions will affect the child’s understanding of when to use each language. They will notice that in the UK most people around them speak English and therefore English is more important as a way of communication. But if the family moves to Beijing, they will hear more Mandarin spoken, and may decide that Mandarin is more important. The level of sensitivity and confidence a child feels about each language however are also factors as to which one is more important to them.

In a multilingual country like Singapore, a quality Chinese Tuition Centre such as EduGrove plays an important role in helping children grow up with strong bilingual skills. Our methodology ensures that children develop a deep sensitivity, as mentioned, to the Mandarin language because every fun, stimulating and inspiring activity fully immerses them within it. They listen with confidence. They comprehend with confidence. And they speak with confidence!


Next time…

In our next post in this series about bilingualism, we will uncover some of the benefits of a bilingual brain and continue with a few more FAQs.