International Mother Language Day is celebrated on February 21st every year. With this day, UNESCO wants to draw attention to the ongoing disappearance of languages ​​and at the same time promote linguistic diversity. People around me are always puzzled as to what my mother tongue is. I grew up multilingual: my parents taught me Farsi (the official language in Iran) and German. I learned English and French at school, and later Spanish at university. So I speak – more or less well – five languages. But what makes a language a “mother tongue”?

Is my mother tongue the language I learned first? Or the one in which I think and dream? Or is it my mother’s first language? And is it actually possible to have several mother tongues?

The Duden defines mother tongue as “a language that a person learns as a child (from their parents) [and primarily uses it]”. However, this definition does not give me clarity. So I speak to the linguist and author Prof. Dr. dr h.c. Jurgen Meisel.

The fact that German, English and many other languages ​​use the term “mother tongue” has to do with the traditional social role of the mother, says Meisel. “Children already hear their mother speaking in the womb. It has been proven that in the first few days after birth they can distinguish their mother’s speech from other languages ​​and react differently to them – for example by sucking more or changing their line of sight.”

However, the language our mother speaks is not necessarily our mother tongue. In science, therefore, a distinction is made between first and second languages, which differ from each other in terms of quality. Lexical knowledge can be improved throughout life, for example by learning new words. According to Meisel, however, mistakes in grammar that monolingual people would not make, for example in word order, the formation of words or phonology, can be seen in children and, above all, in adults when they acquire a second language.

According to the linguist, all children are born gifted with languages: “It has nothing to do with intelligence. The human ability to speak is a predisposition to multilingualism. No educational or pedagogical measures are required here. It is sufficient to interact with the child in meaningful communicative contexts. “

Despite this talent and the natural talent for language, more and more languages ​​are disappearing these days. A recent study by Australian researchers concludes that around half of the 7,000 recognized languages ​​are in danger of disappearing completely. By the end of this century, 1,500 other languages ​​could be extinct. “Without intervention, language loss could triple within 40 years, with at least one language lost per month,” the researchers warn.

According to Meisel, the fact that languages ​​are disappearing is the result of social and economic developments. “400 years ago, people never left their village in their entire lives, and if so, they only made it as far as the nearest county seat. But today people go on vacation to Thailand and so on. Mobility has increased enormously,” he says.

On the one hand there are more and more multilingual people, while on the other hand regional languages ​​are under pressure. The introduction of general compulsory education would have contributed to this, which would have led to the displacement of the regional languages ​​by the respective national language and to their defamation as dialects.

It was assumed at the time that children who would be confronted with several languages ​​from birth would not learn any of the languages ​​properly. Today, however, this assumption is considered outdated. “If I learn to speak several languages ​​from birth, then I can have several mother tongues – whether that is also the case on the emotional side, i.e. whether I prefer one of the languages ​​or not, is another question,” says Meisel.

This is the case with me, for example: Although I grew up multilingual from birth, I clearly prefer one language, namely German. In German I express my thoughts and feelings most aptly and most of all. This makes it my preferred first language – and mother tongue – not only in terms of my actual language skills, but also emotionally.

Quelle: Studie “Nature Ecology and Evolution”