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What Is a First Language?

Someone who grows up in a Chinese-speaking community within a larger English-speaking country might speak Chinese as his first language.
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  • Written By: Karize Uy
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Image By: Guillaume Baviere
  • Last Modified Date: 11 April 2014
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The term “first language” refers to the language a person is most familiar with and most accustomed to speaking. Usually, it is the language that a person hears and eventually learns in the following years after he was born. The term is largely differentiated from other terms such as the “mother tongue,” as this generally refers to the language of a collective group, not of a person. First language is also distinguished from the “second language,” pertaining to the language a person speaks less fluently.

Many linguists and early childhood educators see the acquisition and learning of language as a skill that needs to be developed over time, in contrast to it being innate and instinctive. This principle can be seen in the acquisition of a first language, as the child needs to constantly hear it from his surroundings, such as from his parents at home. After a certain period of imitating the sounds, the child will begin to associate the words with the object they are pertaining, eventually learning to string multiple words into phrases and sentences according to the syntax of that specific language. When the child has learned to speak his first language in the “crucial years,” probably before age 6, he is more likely to retain the language for the rest of his life, even when he has learned other languages or migrated to another country.

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Children may often have just one first language, but this is not always so, especially in countries that take in more than two languages, such as in India, Singapore, and Hong Kong. When a child has two or more first languages, he is identified as “bilingual” or a “multilingual.” Bilingual parents are also more likely to pass down their fluency of two languages to their children. Previous studies asserted that children who are being taught two languages might become confused, but more recent studies have shown that bilingual children have better thinking processes in things like classifying and organizing objects. They can also have better social skills, as along with language, the child will also learn non-verbal cues and decorum associated with the language.

A person’s first language reveals a lot about his identity and his upbringing, especially when his first language is not the “native language” of his home country. For example, a Filipino child who speaks English more fluently may have been born in an upper-to-middle class family, have been exposed to a more Western culture, and may socialize with other middle-class families. In many occasions, a person who has first and second languages has a tendency to mix the two languages together while speaking, an action called “code mixing.”

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