Feb 212014

Mother language

Happy International Mother Language Day! There could not be a more appropriate day than today to reflect on the term ‘mother tongue’ – but what does it really mean, especially if you speak more than one language? How should the term be defined in general and what specific meaning does it have to me? Warning: there will more questions than answers in today’s post.

There is a wonderful proverb in Swedish “Kärt barn har många namn”, the literal translation being “A beloved child has many names”, which is very true for what is generally called the ‘mother tongue’. One of the definitions is that it is ‘the language which a person has grown up speaking from early childhood’. This is generally a viable definition, but what if you for example move to another language environment or get adopted and forget the language you spoke when growing up – are you then mother-tongue-less? And what if you have learned your ‘mother tongue’ from your father, should you then call it your ‘father tongue’?

Some combine the two and call it the ‘parent language’, but this definition stumbles at the first hurdle if your parents speak different languages. Is one of your languages ‘parenter’ than the other? The same conundrum applies to ‘home language’ – in multilingual families there are many languages spoken in the home.

‘Native language’ is another definition, referring to something that has been with you since you were born. The issue is the same as for ‘mother tongue’ – it is applied to languages you have learnt as a child. If you no longer speak your childhood language, you have lost your status as a native speaker. With hard work and enough exposure, you can gain a native-level fluency in another language, but is it true that only if you relearn your early language(s) can you be called a native speaker again (or can you really?)

What about ‘dominant language’, i.e. the language you know best and (normally) use the most in your everyday life, is that what you would refer to as your ‘main language’? Well, this is also in no way a straight-forward definition for a bilingual person. Which language you use in which situation (e.g. at home, at work, in your hobbies) can determine your language competence level for that specific area of your life. This means that the dominant language can vary depending on who you are with and what you do.

Linguists prefer the term ‘L1’ for someone’s preferred language, thus avoiding any emotionally laden words. I do like the more user-friendly variant of L1: ‘first language’, as it can change over time and relates neither to when nor how a language was learned. Another term that gets mentions is ‘arterial language’ as an alternative to ‘mother tongue’ or ‘native language’ – not sure I care too much for relating your language to your arteries … although some of my languages undeniably are more “in my blood” than others.

So what about myself? If someone asks me what my ‘mother tongue’ is, I answer “Swedish. But the answer is not as clear-cut as it may seem: it is not the Swedish spoken in Sweden, it’s Finland-Swedish. My mother was a Finnish-speaker, so Finnish was (and is) definitely one of my first languages and was for a long time my emotionally closest language. I grew up bilingual, learning a Finland-Swedish dialect from my father and grandmother. The dialect is probably what I would call my ‘arterial language’, it is in my blood; so much so that although I haven’t lived in the area where the dialect is spoken, or used it in my day to day life, for more than thirty years, it is very close to my heart. (I also occasionally write blog posts in my dialect.) For a few years during my studies and subsequent teaching at university, German was on a par with my other first languages. Now, living in England and my daughters having flown the nest, Swedish is no longer the ‘dominant language’. I write my blog and book in English and my husband and I speak it together, so English has become an additional emotional first language for me. So there you have it. I embrace all my languages and feel extremely blessed to have them in my life.

Are you bilingual? Which is your first language / mother tongue / native language / L1 / … and how do you determine it? Do you have more than one?

Read what other bloggers have written about the topic:

Ute Limacher-Riebold also reflects on the different definitions in her post “Mothertongue, first language, native language or dominant language?”

Annika Bourgogne tells her bilingual story in “My Mother’s Tongues”

Stephen Greene, from Head of the Heard, writes about how his son is being raised to become bilingual in “Father Tongue”

May the peace and power be with you.


© Rita Rosenback 2017

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  53 Responses to “Mother tongue – how do you define yours?”

  1. Thank you for mentioning my post, Rita. I noticed that many people do have a language “close to their heart”. It doesn’t have to be one of their dominant languages, it usually is the one they feel more comfortable with. The one they just cherish the most. I completely understand your way of embracing all the languages you speak. For me, my “home” are my languages 😉

    • Yes, it is all very subjective, and there is no one-fits-all definition for what a ‘mother tongue’ is – and your ‘first language’ can be more than one 🙂

      • I’m planning to write a novel but I can’t decide which languages I should use. I’m more comfortable with my mother tongue i.e Bengali. I don’t know English so much. Will it effect if I write my novel in Bengali?

        • I know this problem. I write stories and plays as well, and I often feel they have to be in German, but English is better for marketing them…my writing blog is much better visited, if I write something in English… All the best for your novel!

  2. For us the dominant language spoken in the house is English as most of the stuff we read/ see is in English however we do speak Cantonese as it’s hb “father tongue” and mandarin as it is another language which the kids have to learn in school as it is compulsory to learn 2 languages here in Singapore. There are smattering of Korean and Japanese too as we normally listen to Korean or Japanese music and watched lots of Korean Dramas 🙂

  3. I’ve never experienced this problem, because I have a clearly defined mother language (which is a language that I don’t even like that much) but I imagine how confusing can become to know that you spoke fluently a language when you were a child and now other languages have taken its place. But I suppose that you have maintain your L1, 🙂 that’s something that a lot of young immigrants choose not to do once that they live in another country.

    • Thank you for sharing your insight, Emanuel. It is true that many immigrant children and youngsters end up giving up on their home country language. On one hand it can be understandable as they want to “fit in” and be just like all their peers. Parents have a great responsibility in showing pride and making an effort to keep the home country language alive.

  4. I think it should be your mother or father’s tongue(or more interestingly, mother or father’s mother tongue). Parents should pass down their mother tongue to next generation in order to protect the language(s). The importance of the definition of mother tongue varies from country to country. In China, the government is trying to wipe out all other languages rather than Mandarin. They even promote to the kids that Mandarin is the “First Mother Language”(yeah, ridiculous). They also started forcing the kindergartens and schools to teach in Mandarin several years ago. And Mandarin speakers won’t learn other languages even they live in a non-Mandarin speaking city in China. But they like to work and live in non-Mandarin speaking cities, so the local people will be forced to speak Mandarin to them. Many native kids are not able to speak their mother tongue(such as Cantonese) now.
    Thus, the definition of the Mother Tongue is important for the survival of languages in China. So we opt to take the definition that helps our language survive till the language policy becomes favorable to us.

    My mother tongue is Cantonese. And I have no difficulties in listening or speaking Mandarin. And a little bit of English and Japanese.

    • Thank you so much for this insight into the situation in China. I absolutely agree with you that the importance of the definition varies from one country to another and is definitely more significant in areas where you have to defend your own mother tongue. As always, the role of the parents is crucial in making sure that the language is passed on from one generation to the next. I admire your language skills!

  5. None of the terms mentioned will ever work as they are all based on a monolingual paradigm with language seen as pure, bounded ‘thing’, and we all know that this is not how the multilingual reality looks like. Pozdrowienia, terveisiä!

    • Interesting point you make, Magda. For the purpose of discussion and research I think we will however have to choose a term that suits the specific context. For us bilinguals it is, as you say, not as clear-cut as it is for monolinguals.

  6. Yes, I agree with you, of course we need words/ terms to study and discuss concepts and phenomena and for the lack of betters ones we use those we have at hand that seem most suitable for a particular context. My point is that the way we talk about things constructs what we think and how we act (we meaning individuals, groups but perhaps more importantly also institutions) and has very often very concrete material effects, for example the term “mother tongue” implicitly indicates that the person can only have one (just like you can have only one biological mother), hence people are often ‘forced’ to choose one or another language as their mother tongue (for example for bureaucratic/ administrative purposes) which can have implications for example for the educational opportunities in future. From my own experience: the extract from population register of my son (born in Finland, Finnish father, Polish mother), used to register him in Poland states that his “äidinkieli” (mother tongue in Finnish) is Finnish, fair enough: it is, SIMULTANEOUSLY WITH Polish, BUT NO ONE EVER ASKED US ABOUT IT, it was an assumption made on the basis of his surname and place of birth (not to mention that directly interpreted term mother tongue in this case makes no sense), and if this information stays in official registers, he won’t be entitled to language lessons which municipality has to organize for school age children whose mother tongue is not Finnish. And these are the material effects I mentioned above.

    • This is very true. I had the same dilemma when registering my daughters at school here in the UK. Luckily enough I was able to squeeze in more than one language in the form and then explain it to the school, which they were ok with. Interesting that you were never asked about the mother tongue – we registered our girls as Swedish-speakers when they were born in Finland, and the question was asked. Would it have been possible for you to put down Polish, or are the options only Finnish or Swedish? I think you can also change the language registered at birth, maybe you could ask about this if it affects your chances of getting support for your son.

  7. Good information here. May I reblog this post? I’m writing my own blog in Japanese and English, trying to figure out which is my dominant language. I’m raising my quarter Vietnamese (no Vietnamese speaker in the house), quarter (Irish/British) American, half Japanese children in Singapore while observing how their language skills develop.

    • Thank you – delighted you liked my post! Please feel free to reblog and link back 🙂
      With regards to the ‘dominant language’, you’ll probably find that you feel more comfortable with Japanese in certain areas and with English in others. Someone once said that you choose your “real mother tongue” (whatever that phrase may mean) to do quick mental maths. Let’s say someone throws you a bunch of matchsticks and you have to quickly count them in your head. The language you choose is supposedly your mother tongue. Not too sure about that, but it’s an interesting experiment.

      • Thank you! As I write in both languages, I’m familiarizing myself with the concept of having dominant language in different situations. The matchstick toss is an interesting experiment. I learned basic arithmetic in Japanese, but studied higher level math in English…so not sure if that would work : )

  8. […] is inspire by the International Mother Language Day, which was observed on 21st February. In her latest blog post in Multilingual Parenting, Rita Rosenback reminds readers that defining a ‘mother tongue’ is not always very […]

  9. Reblogged this on Duel Languages and commented:
    Interesting breakdown of different terminologies used to describe your comfort level with multiple languages.

  10. Hi Rita, this post was powerful. Thank you.
    The language of your hearth is not something I experienced myself as I grew up monolingual and not for my oldest child who always shown a situation orientated preference or a mood orientated preference. But the story was different for my daughter: she started a bilingual program (English and Turkish) in a school and she wasn’t happy, but moreover she had a lot of difficulties in learning, so much that we refer to a specialist to exclude dyslexia. For second grade we moved her to the Italian school and she blossomed, she started to read fluently in all her three languages, be engaged with classes etc. My daughter‘s hearth language is definitely Italian and it was the key to make her succeed her academically. Now the problem seems to be overcome as we are in Sweden now, and she is doing very well in the International School she is attending. Though I can see that her favored language is still Italian, when I shared it informally with prof. Genesee, he suggested me that it could be because I were my daughter ´s role model (flattering and scaring) 🙂

    • Thank you, Annalia, for your wonderful comments and for sharing your family’s story. I am sorry you had to go through the dyslexia worry – it is so sad that bilingual children still get diagnosed as having language development difficulties of varying kinds, when the issue more often than not lies in incorrect testing methods and insufficient support. How great that your daughter can now attend a school where she can thrive! And how lucky your children are to have you as their mother – I do agree with the professor, it is so important for children to have great role models 🙂

  11. Very nice post I come from a bilingual family also my mother is Romanian and my father is Arab I speak both languages perfect although Arabic is much more closer to my heart I learned German when I was very little I speak it fluently and English obviously so that’s 4 speak some Persian some Turkish and some french also I would love to learn every single language on the face of the earth

  12. […] All my languages are an intrinsic part of my identity. Every single one of them has helped me understand other people and cultures and thus contributed to the person I am today. They do however not split my identity, they consolidate it. […]

  13. I absolutely adore what you have written down. Your work helped me complete my assignment, however I would want a little help from you. what do you think about how does a child acquire his mother tongue?
    let me know your point of view.

    thanks in advance. 🙂

  14. Hello Rita,

    I am trilingual and the languages I speak are Catalan, Spanish and English. At home I speak Catalan and Spanish to my mother and with my father I speak to him in English and sometimes in Catalan.

    For me it is quite hard to consider which is my mother tongue, which is my native language and which is my dominant language because I speak the three languages that I know every day.

    When I was born, my mother only spoke to me in Catalan and my father only in English, and in between them they spoke Spanish to each other and still do it. I think that my first language and my mother tongue is Catalan because I spoke it to my mother and to my father all the time until I was 4 or 5 and started to answer my father in English.

    I think that my dominant language is English because in the school that I am in, the grade which they are teaching Catalan is for third or fourth graders and I am in eight grade (its an American School) so, my English is much better than my Catalan. I don’t know if my Spanish is better that my Catalan or not and I don’t really know how to prove it.

    I really liked reading your post it was very interesting to read.


    • Hi Anna – thank you for your kind comment and for sharing your own language story. I can only agree with you, the term ‘mother tongue’ is not a simple one to define, and it can mean different things to different people. The term is as multifaceted as the phenomenon that it describes!

  15. […] We all have a mother tongue which is important to us – you can read this post for more musings on the term and my own “mother tongue” situation. We should all be proud of […]

  16. My 8 year-old son has grown up speaking English with me (pretty much his only interlocutor in English other than when family visit), and Spanish with his father and at school and social situations (we live in Spain). He moves easily from one to the other and each is totally accurate for his age and with no interference. I would be hard pressed to say which language is his “mother tongue” and to distinguish between them in terms of fluency, vocabulary and reading ability. What would your comments be on this situation? And for fear of sounding like I am boasting, is it normal to have such a high level in two languages at this age with no interference whatsoever?

    • Thank you, Sarah, for sharing your family’s story! How fantastic that your son has learnt to master both his languages so fluently – well done to you and your husband! I firmly believe that a person can have more than one native language (I certainly have) – your son has both a “mother tongue” and a “father tongue”. With the right exposure children can – like in your son’s case – become highly proficient in more than one language at an astonishingly young age. — and go ahead, I think you should boast about as often as you can!

  17. Hello ms Rita ;thank you for this topic , i’m not here to tolk aboit my mother tongue . I’m a BA student i have a research paper in (the first language acquisition of children who have two mother tongues),i just want your help if you have some articles or books concerning my topic i will be very greatful . souad.bouguezmir@gmail.com this is my gmail i hope i will get your answer soon. thank you

  18. […] or the language “our parents taught us”. For some of us this is true, others not so. As author Rita Rosenback says, in this diverse world we can be “mother-tongue-less” and don’t speak our mother tongue. […]

  19. Hello Rita!

    I read that brilliant article of yours with a great interest. To be perfectly honest, I wish I could turn back time in order to become bilingual in my childhood. My lack of giftedness in foreign languages is something I insanely curse because I wish to master at least three languages in my life. If my memory serves me well, Goethe once said very wise and profound about this subject : ❝Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”

    English is not my mother tongue so I try very hard to master it. I grew up in a town located in the south of France (Cannes, if you know), so I have an awful accent when I speak in English. I wonder if I’ll be able someday to get rid of it. I’m still young (I’m 18) though, so I may be not that hopeless!

  20. I just wanted to ask about that what is the mother tongue influence on writing skill on learning a second language.,….. what do you think this influence is positive or negative….. for ESL learners of primary level…when at a time they also learning their mother tongue…. will it interferes in second language?

  21. Is it true February 21st International Mother Language Day? I’m only asking because that’s the day before my son’s birthday.

    I’m so glad you posted or reposted this article on your Facebook page yesterday! I found you via a trilingual parent blog on which you once were hosted. My three and a half year old son is on his way back from a doctor’s appointment as I write this. The reason his nurse wanted him to see a doctor is because, he and two-year old sister are exposed to five different languages, technically.

    My husband is Dane. He speaks Danish with the kids. I am from Burundian and Kirundi is my “parent language”. Growing up, French was the language in which all school subjects were taught, apart from Kirundi and English. It is the official language in Burundi. Without really being my “main language”, since Kirundi probably remains my “arterial language”, I consider French to be my L1. So that’s what I opted to teach the kids. We live in Sweden. English is the language my husband and I use to communicate. It is listed as the kids’ hemspråk” here in Sweden. With Swedish, that’s a total five languages for my babies. Although I only speak French with the kids, Kirundi counts because it is their mother’s mother tongue.

    Just putting this in writing is exhausting. It’s been a struggle and I’m happy whenever I find website such as these where to turn to for encouragement as well as advice.

    Now, I’ll go and find out how things went with the doctor’s appointment went.

    • Dear Danielle, yes, 21st of February is United Nations’ International Mother Language Day – a very apt day for your family! Just so I understand you correctly, your son’s nurse wanted him to see the doctor because he is surrounded by many languages … why? In Africa kids are regularly exposed to many languages and no one would dream of speaking to a doctor about it. Let me know what the doctor had to say!

      • Very apt indeed! With all the “mother languages” in our family, we might one day start celebrating it. 🙂

        Yes, my son’s nurse is a little concerned about the delay in speaking (Swedish), and would like a doctor to see him, probably in order to recommend that a speech therapist follows up on my son’s progress.

        I worried a little at the start of the year, when he was about to turn three and didn’t show much interest in constructing a sentence for example. He only put 2-3 words together then. I am now busy marvelling at the ability of such young kids to understand four languages, while managing to express themselves in at least two of them. Really impressive what the brain can do!

  22. You know, I always have such a hard time with the question “What is your first/native language?”. I grew up speaking three languages, and I have been told I have a slight accent in all three. I was born in Québec, to a Russian speaking mother and a French speaking father. But we left Québec for an English speaking province when I was eight. But I still finished all of my education in a francophone school. According to my mother the very first words I ever spoke were in Russian, but I didn’t learn to read or write Russian until I went to university, where I took Russian language courses. I feel a big emotional connection to Russian – it’s the language in which I want to express my emotions (except anger), but I am unable to express myself like a native speaker should (I couldn’t discuss philosophy, or science or math or poetry, just everyday things and interactions). French is my favourite language in which to learn new concepts (especially sciences and maths) and is also the language I want to use if I feel angry or frustrated, and the language in which my personality feels most genuine. English is the language in which I have the most varied vocabulary, and the language in which I am most likely to read a book for pleasure. But English feels emotionally void compared to Russian and French, and I think the way I behave when speaking English reflects this (I could never imagine speaking English to a lover or my child, or even a best friend).

    Out of the six languages I speak, it is so much easier to say which languages are not my native languages: German, Polish and Spanish. A phonetics prof once told me that because I have a francophone accent in Spanish, French must be my native language (he may have presumed this because of the slight accent I have in English too). I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I have an anglophone accent in German and a Russian accent in Polish.

    Maybe I don’t have a mother tongue? A doctor told me to only speak my native language, otherwise she wouldn’t end up being being a native speaker of any language. Meanwhile, I have no idea which language that means.

    Thanks for sharing this article, it was an interesting read.

    • Dear Vika,

      Thank you for your comment and for sharing your highly interesting language background!

      To be honest, the term ‘mother tongue’ does not apply to many of us who speak more than one language and have learnt them at a young age. The term stems very much from a monolingual and educational context, where you would have classes in your “mother tongue” as opposed to learning “foreign languages”. I would say that you have the luxury of several “mother tongues” – not that you have none!

      Have you heard the saying “Always show respect to people who speak with an accent – they probably know one more language than you”? I think it is a perfect comment when it comes to accents! And please do disregard the doctor’s comment about only sticking to one language – it is based on misinformation and old myths.

      If you haven’t already, I would recommend that you read Prof. Grosjean’s book ‘Bilingual – Life and Reality’ where Prof. Grosjean gives a great description of the languages of a bilingual person. I found it very enlightening and empowering, written by a bilingual about bilinguals for bilinguals and without a monolingual presumption in sight.

      Kind regards

  23. […] Attending school in a language I knew was something I took for granted when I was small. The realisation that just like running water and roof over my head, this is by far not the standard for many children, makes me truly appreciate what I had. I was born into a bilingual family with a Finnish-speaking mother and a Swedish-speaking father, and – because both of the languages have an official status in Finland – schooling was available in both. Which one is my mother tongue? – well, that is good question and you can read my further musings i…. […]

  24. Mrs.Rita Rosenback it’s a very nice essay on “MY MOTHER TONGUE”. After reading this essay i’m only having one wish to get successful is ”TO MEET YOU SOON”.

  25. Dear Rita,
    I came to your site by chance, and what you wrote got an echo in me. And, this is of different reasons as I have something common with you. By birth, I am Egyptian and yes I say mother tongue was Arabic. At school we learn at that time English as first foreign language and French as the second. Learning at that time was putting emphases on reading, writing and grammar, but not speaking.
    As a church choirboy at childhood time, I learned to sing hymns in Coptic language. This gave me to use more sounds. In addition, Coptic letters were of great meaning to me, and I felt that these letters would be of help to know more about Ancient Egyptian culture. To some extent it helps in other areas, among others finding the relation with Demotic form of Ancient Egyptian scripts, Greek ones and more recent ones of Latin and Russian. By education and profession, I am a mathematician, so Greek letters use in mathematics was of associated motivation for studying.
    What is common with you is that today my everyday language is Finnish, my wife is Finn and we leave and work in Finland. In scientific international work I use mainly English. By the way, I was surprised to find that my passive theoretical education of English was of help in speaking at international conferences.
    The mystery I face related to languages is the Russian language. This has two forms. The first is related to its learning. It was the 1970s in Moscow, and instead of a year of study to start research work, I was able to make the final examination with full mark after less than three months. There I loved to sing traditional Russian songs, and to some extent still. Here the Russian letters weren’t completely new for me. I saw Russian letters close to Greek ones, and later came to know that two letters of Russian do not came from Old Greek, but from Coptic. Anyway, the real mystery is the next. At the moment my Russian is not good as 40 years ago, but wherever and whenever I hear Russian spoken sounds, not solely close or clear, I found myself change the language of speech with my wife, cash desk shop or others into Russian. What this can mean? The problem here is that Arabic writing and speaking still strong as before, and it was before very strong, but I didn’t change my speech into Arabic if I hear people spoke it in a place close to me. Again, why this mother tongue hasn’t similar affect to Russian?

    • Dear George,
      thank you so much for telling your fantastic language story, how absolutely fascinating!
      It is very interesting how you feel the need to switch to Russian when you hear it around you – what I will do, is to contact some of my more learned friends and see if they can come up with an explanation to this.
      One thought is that the Finnish environment is probably more like Russia, so maybe hearing Russian takes you back to that time so you get a feeling that you are back in Russia? Have you even felt anything similar with Arabic, being in a culturally/environmentally similar surrounding as Egypt, but speaking a different language and only overhearing Arabic?
      Thank you again, I will let you know as soon as I have any response from my researcher friends.
      Kind regards

      • Dear Rita,

        I came to your site by chance, and indeed I am happy with your answer and also your question. I am living in Finland and my everyday life use of Finnish has to reach soon forty years time. As you know, Finland and Russian societies do have some common elements, but still Swedish society closer. By language, Finnish is neither a Latin nor a Slavic. It is a major language of the Finno-Ugric group of languages.
        Regards the environment, with globalisation Finland has changed a lot. Forty years ago, you didn’t here people speak foreign languages; it is either Finnish or Swedish and this depended on the region. Nowadays it is indeed too different, you here foreign languages everywhere, and particularly in shops. So, I hear Arabic quite often, but it didn’t bring anything similar to her Russian, even its sounds effect and not exact dialog of clear words.
        Best regards,

        • Dear George,

          I asked Prof Grosjean about your experience (you can listen/read about an interview with him here: http://multilingualparenting.com/2016/04/27/prof-francois-grosjean-on-bilingualism-language-mode-and-identity/) and these are his thoughts:

          “It’s always difficult to try and find causes for the “sudden emergence” of a language as in George’s case. Clearly, his time in Russia was special to him (he learned Russian quickly, passed his exams with flying colors, loved to sing Russian songs, etc.) and so the language has a special place in his heart (brain). When he hears the language being spoken, it reactivates all those memories, as well as the need to speak the language, and other pragmatic considerations (e.g. his wife does not know Russian) are deactivated. He therefore finds himself speaking Russian.”

          Really fascinating!

          Kind regards

          • Dear Rita,

            Thank you very much for this fantastic work in behalf of me. I think that Prof Grosjean has touched something genuine. Regards my wife, she is Finn but she speaks Russian with a Russian native accent.

            It is a time if youth, time for research and also some for fun. We hadn’t any thing to do with politics; my wife was there for practicing her Russian. What collected us was the love to master more language and this was a key to know more about Russian culture.

            Thank you very much and thanks to Prof Grosjean.
            Best regards,

          • I also contacted Prof Arturo Hernandez, the author of the book The Bilingual Brain to ask his opinion on this, and here is his answer


            I think what you are experiencing is very interesting in the sense that it reveals how a multilingual carves up the world in order to deal with all the possible pitfalls that might occur. In some sense, Russian for you is like an orphan language. That is you used it in a very specific context during a very specific time in your life. So it is not really strongly tied to a lot of other experiences in your life. You also had to learn how to suppress (i’ll use this word but there are other more technical words such as inhibit or reduce activation that can also be used) Egyptian in order to speak Russian. I assume that you also learned English in between at some point as well. Because Russian was not a language that you used frequently you had to actually work harder to suppress the other languages in order to speak it. This is still the case as I think you would find it very hard to speak Russian and then switch to Finnish or any other language quickly. Arabic is basically your first language and as such it is tied to many different experiences. You can probably speak Arabic under duress or in your sleep. It is there naturally and you can speak it just as you breathe. No thought or effort needed. Finnish is there because you live in the context and it is constantly supported by the environment.

            So I think the reason that you switch completely is that you had to do this initially to learn it. Once a memory is established in a certain way then it is easiest to retrieve in exactly the same way. Our memory is very large but we can only maintain a few things in mind at one time. So we have to pick and choose what to keep in mind and what to keep out of mind. In your case, Russian works best for you when you keep all the other languages out of mind.

            I had a very similar experience when I learned Portuguese in my early 20’s and lived in Brazil. I have also experienced something very similar in German my fourth language. I have found that going to any other country negatively impacts my German and it takes one to two weeks to get it back. I don’t feel this with Spanish and English which are both native languages. They are always there no matter what. Portuguese goes and comes somewhat but German is very context sensitive. It just seems to be perturbed by not hearing it or speaking it. And the pattern is always the same. Extended trips to Germany always start off with great difficulty as I try to adjust. Then after several months it gets better. If I switch to any other language for long periods of time, I feel very sluggish in German. Ideally, I would just speak German to everyone all the time and be done with it. But neither my job nor my personal life allow this.

            I suspect that one day I will experience something similar to what you are experiencing in that German will either be there or not.

            I have written a book called The Bilingual Brain and also offer a Coursera course on the topic. I go into a lot more depth and maybe you will find some additional answers there to your questions.

            Prof Arturo Hernandez

            It is a highly interesting phenomenon you are experiencing, George!

            Kind regards

  26. Dear Rita and Arturo,

    Many thanks for you both, it was indeed a good chance to me to reflect more in my own phenomena and find such support.

    Muchas Gracias por todo.

  27. Hello Rita;
    I wonder if you are able to give me a little insight into a question raised during a recent dinner conversation. My step daughter is a native Bulgarian speaker who speaks quite good English but with a Bulgarian accent and my son-in-law is an English speaker with a fairly strong South African accent. The comment made was that a speech therapist had recommended to the mother only speak to their 6-month-old son in her native Bulgarian because if she speaks to him in English with her Bulgarian accent, it will confuse him. Your view on this? Much appreciated.


    • Hi Ron

      I really can’t see why a child would get confused by a parent having an accent – it is not as if the little baby is born with an innate knowledge of perfect English (whatever that may mean) and hence would be confused when hearing something different. The child will learn whatever the parents speak, so if parents speak a language with an accent, so will the child – unless the child also gets plenty of exposure to the language from native speakers. Another thing altogether is whether your step daughter at some point would rather speak her mother tongue with her son and would like him to be able to communicate with her side of the family in Bulgarian. If this was the case, then it would be recommended that she speaks Bulgarian with him.

      Kind regards

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