My best friend Meera is from Odisha and speaks Odia, English, and Hindi fluently. Her husband, Atul is from Maharashtra and I’ve always seen both of them conversing in Hindi. Their daughter Tia who is just 5 yrs old, understands Hindi, Odia, and Marathi though she is more fluent in Hindi. Of course, Meera always specifies that Tia’s native language is both Odia and Marathi and Hindi is her mother tongue.

In countries like India, such instances are very common nowadays and perhaps the reason why mother tongue and native language are not synonymous anymore.

A first language, or mother/father/parent tongue (also known as arterial language or L1), is a language that a person has been exposed to from birth.

The concept of having a mother tongue and the corresponding tendency to equate it to a native or regional language is a very Indian practice. The regional languages of India are the languages that are often spoken at home and are the ‘mother tongue’ or first language of that specific community.

Unfortunately, the schools want to stress that the first language at school is English, which leads to confusion and the handy substitute is ‘Indian Regional Language’ in official documents and ‘Mother Tongue’ in colloquial use.

Outside India, anybody would understand you speak a native/regional language, most will be confused about you having a ‘mother tongue’, as most of the countries use an official language native to the country.

In some countries, the term native language or mother tongue refers to the language of one’s ethnic group rather than one’s first language. Children brought up speaking more than one language can have more than one native language, and be bilingual or multilingual. By contrast, a second language is any language that one speaks other than one’s first language.

The first language or native language of a child is part of the personal, social and cultural identity. It also brings about the reflection and learning of successful social patterns of linguistic competence of acting and speaking.

A person is bilingual by being equally proficient in both languages. A person who grows up speaking English and begins learning Hindi for four years is not necessarily bilingual unless they speak the two languages with equal fluency. Balanced bilinguals perform significantly better in tasks that require flexibility (they constantly shift between the two known languages depending on the situation/requires constant juggling), more aware of arbitrary nature of language and also that balanced bilinguals choose word associations based on logical rather than phonetic preferences.

One can have two or more native languages, thus being a native bilingual or indeed multilingual. India, Indonesia, Philippines, Kenya, Malaysia, Singapore, South Africa are examples where most people speak more than one language.

The designation “native language,” in its general usage, is thought to be imprecise and subject to various interpretations that are biased linguistically, especially with respect to bilingual children from ethnic minority groups. The definitions of ‘native language’ vary based on common usage, the emotional relation of the speaker towards the language, and even its dominance in relation to the environment. However, all of three criteria lack precision. For many children whose home language differs from the language of the environment (the ‘official’ language), it is debatable which language is one’s ‘native language’.

Now since we have established that native language can always differ from mother tongue, I’d like to shift the focus to the common misconception that mother tongue is essential to preserve cultural heritage. Like in my friend’s case, Meera follows all rituals of Raja and Kumar Purnami festivals and teaches their importance to Tia and also performs Ganesh Chaturthi festival the Maharashtrian way with great enthusiasm. I believe Tia is culturally much stronger than any one of us here. She understands the cultural diversity and yet through her, the compassion of her parent’s heritage is also preserved. I’m sure Tia’s generation would have a much better and global understanding of cultures and how ultimately everything comes together as we being humans. As far as Tia’s native languages are concerned, if she is ever interested she could learn and enhance her skills on those languages.

I myself can read, write and speak Odia, English, Hindi quite well. I can understand Bangla and I’m learning Urdu. But the language I’m more at ease and proficient is in English. My native language/mother tongue is Odia, which I learned from birth. I adapted to English much later in life. Yes, that’s exactly the word I was looking for, Adaptation. I used to and still read lots and lots of literature in English and somewhere down the line, I started conversing with myself in English too. That’s how I adapted.

Over the past few years, there have been significant cultural changes within our society. Education has gained importance and has become a priority. The socioeconomic changes have caused people to move out and seek employment outstation and overseas and people preferring to settle down there just for mere convenience. During my 4 years stay in the USA surprisingly I found the Odia families and their children are more closer to their culture. Of course, learning our native language is very important, but a more progressive attitude of adaptation would definitely help preserve the “mother tongue” and also the native culture.