Is English Your First Language, Even If Not Your Native?

English is the most spoken language in the world, with 134.8 billion speakers worldwide. Yet, out of all of those speakers, less than a third speak it natively. This means many learn it as a foreign language, due to how useful English can be. Many still wonder if English might be their first language, despite not being their native. Thus, we should ask:

Is English your first language, even if not your native?

For English to be your first language, it has to be the language one learned from birth. In other words, a first language is acquired without the use of another. First languages also tend to correlate to your native language, this means that for one to be your first, it must be native.

Can English be my first language if I speak it very well? Could you have two first languages (and one being English)? What is the difference between a first language and a mother tongue? How do I know if English is my first language? What is considered your first language anyway? I’ll answer all of these and more down below!

What Is Considered Your First Language?

There are a plethora of languages out there, and we learn them for all sorts of reasons. Some of these “reasons” are universal and therefore extremely popular, with some of them being: for more career opportunities, traveling, or even better education.

With all of these different languages we can learn, and why we may learn them, how do we decide our first language? What is considered your first language anyways?

Your first language is the earliest language you learned, thus being your first. Any other language you may learn later in your life is learned through your first. Most will continue to favor this language throughout their life, and naturally will always compare other languages to it.

Unlike with second languages, where we can pick and choose languages that please us (for any particular reason), first languages are out of our hands. We can’t choose our first language, much like how we can’t choose where we’re born or our family.

The most important things in life: religion, language, country, and family are given to us without our say in the matter. This isn’t to say that there is some injustice in that, but rather that like with your family and country, it’s what you make of it.

How Do I Know If English Is My First Language?

If we now have a better idea on knowing first languages in general, where does that leave English? How do you know if English is your first language?

If English is your first language, it must have been the earliest learnt language, and taught by your parents. First languages tend to be someone’s main language, due to the family and cultural connections tied to it. As such English will likely be your preferred language if it is your first.

Knowing your first language can be determined by three questions:

  1. Was it the first language I learned? (which is kind of the most important factor)
  2. Did my parents teach me?
  3. Is it the predominant language of where I was born?

People love to point out exceptions, and questions “2” and “3” can at times be disregarded in situations that are a tad bit grey. For the most part however, our first language will answer all three questions perfectly.

It really should be stressed the importance of a first language not being acquired by the use of another. As is discussed in this article, this is a process that is taken for granted. For very young children to, in a sense, “learning” a language is nothing shy of extraordinary.

What Is A Native Language, And How Is It Related To A First?

Having discussed first languages, we should see how determining our own native language differs. That we might learn more about our own first language, we should ask: what is considered your native language?

Your native language is generally the first language learnt, and is taught by one’s parents. A native language will directly correspond to the most prominent language in the region where one was born. The parents of an individual normally share the same native language.

Clearly what we think of as being two entirely separate terms, are not so different after all. Natives languages and first languages are essentially the same thing, with minor exceptions that are quite rare.

What are some of these exceptions?

Depending when you learn a language, typically below the age of five, it is common to consider however many languages learned as being your native. If as a very young child you were taught two languages, then they both might be considered your native languages.

Why is this considered an exception?

This odd situation requires two things that go hand in hand: that parents would teach their child below the age of five more than one language (which is rare), then a child would learn them almost equally. Like with any subject, the rule is that you’re probably not the exception.

If you are interested in more about English, or other topics relating to language learning, then feel free to check some of my articles on these subjects.

What Does It Mean To Have English As A First Language?

We now might know what a first language is, but does it have any worth beyond that? Keeping close to our main topic, what about English? What does it mean to have English as a first language?

To have English as your first language will affect things like: learning other languages, your own worldview, and how well you can find international jobs. With English as your first language, you learn others through it and the cultures of the English language will be your own.

One of the leading causes to why anyone learns foreign languages is for career opportunities. If English is your first language, then you already have one of the most highly sought after career languages under your belt.

Yet, what about the ways English as your first language can affect you more personally? How does English affect learning another language and your own culture?

The Importance Of English As A First Language In Language Learning

Starting with what most language learners will care about, both beginner and veteran alike, is how English will affect learning other languages. What is the importance of English as a first language in language learning?

With English as a first language, it will affect how well you can learn other languages due to the necessity of learning them through English. Thus, all of English’s idioms and phrases, Latin and Germanic Influences, and inconsistent phonetics will affect learning other languages.

Languages are hard enough, and coming from a particular background (like English) can make some even harder. What are some unique quirks of English that will make certain languages more difficult?

Cultural Phrases And Idioms

Like any language, there are culture phrases and idioms whose meaning is lost if one does not understand the intricacies of a particular culture.

Examples of well known sayings that on their surface sound horrifying are:

It’s raining cats and dogs!

Or, my personal favorite:

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater!

The first is just saying that a rain is particularly heavy, and the second refers to sometimes when trying to throw out all of the bad in something we might just throw away the good too.

While English relies heavily on these sorts of phrases, others do not. This can make for a hurdle for native English speakers when learning other languages.

Influences From Latin And Germanic Languages

English is a West-Germanic language, and has received a lot of influences from Latin based languages throughout the centuries. Many even mistakenly think of English as a Romance language (Latin based) due to the amount of Latin influence it has to its vocabulary.

This will naturally make some languages that are foreign to both language groups very difficult for English speakers.

Some common examples of hard languages for English native speakers, all of which are foreign to Latin and Germanic languages, would be Japanese, Arabic, and Mandarin Chinese.

Inconsistent Phonetics

English is not consistent with its phonetics, almost close to the level of the notoriously phonetically inconsistent language: French. This will certainly affect learning languages that are phonetically consistent like Russian, Dutch, and German.

However, this does not necessarily mean it would make languages like Russian harder for English speakers. Instead it might even make it slightly easier in that specific instance.

What is definitely true though, is that it would be something to get used to for native English speakers.

I wrote about this in much more detail about English phonetics, and the most consistent language, in my article: What Are Some Phonetically Consistent Languages?

English As A First Language Will Shape Your Worldview

Your first language will affect learning foreign languages, but how does it affect you specifically? Connecting this to our overall topic, how can English as your first language help shape your worldview?

The cultures of the English language will shape how you see the world, with its history and religious background. If English is your first language, then you will probably hold most of these cultural beliefs and practices. Thus, learning a language is more than memorizing vocabulary.

English has a rich history dating back to the fifth century, and has been close to the Christian Faith almost from the 11th century.

With all of its great thinkers and playwrights, along with its beliefs and practices, English is different from other languages in a much deeper way than having different grammar rules.

For better or for worse, English’s cultural beliefs and traditions make it unique, and cannot be separated from the language.

If English is your first language, you will undoubtedly hold at least some of its beliefs and traditions.

English Is Not My First Language

If it’s pretty clear by now that English is not your first language, you might wonder if it could still be your native language. Essentially the reverse of our overall topic’s question, we can ask: English is not my first language, but could it be my native?

If English is not your first language, then it cannot be your native language and mother tongue according to their generally accepted definitions. Learning to speak English as a second language later in life will automatically mean that it cannot be your native or first language.

Unless a language was the first learned, and naturally taught by your parents, it can’t be your native, first, or even mother tongue.

Is English My First Language If I Speak It Really Well?

This is something a lot of people ask about. A solution that a lot of “snake oil salesman” try to sell, is that if you speak a language good enough it can become your first or native language. Is that even possible? Is English my first language if I speak it really well?

English is not your first language if you simply speak it well, since a first language is only determined by whether or not it was what you learned earliest in life. Thus, you would still be considered a language learner, but that would not lessen the merit in being proficient in English.

The same goes for native languages, since like with a first language, you don’t choose them. No matter what they tell you, or more often try to sell you (through language learning programs and the like), you cannot make a language your native.

Can You Sound Just Like A Native Speaker?

If you can’t make a language your first or native, could you at least achieve the very next best thing of sounding as if you were a native speaker?

Most of the time you won’t be able to sound like a native. Unfortunately, to do so requires perfecting a language several ways:

  • To Master The Culture
    • Things like social cues, cultural phrases and practices are paramount to acting like a native in a much deeper sense.
  • To Master the Language
    • The features of a language must be perfectly done, with things like the accent, vocabulary and so forth giving away whether or not one is native.

To sound like a native speaker, not only must you master the language, but to master (in a sense) the way of life of those who speak it natively.

As such, it is incredibly difficult to “fool” or convince people that you speak a foreign language natively. It can be done, albeit very rarely.

English As A Mother Tongue VS. First Language

Having already compared native and first languages, learning that there isn’t much difference between them, it would only be right to discuss mother tongues now. What makes first languages different from mother tongues? Especially if English is your first language.

Or more dramatically I could say: English as a mother tongue Vs. First language (Epic Showdown!)

English as a first language or as a mother tongue generally means the same thing. A mother tongue is the main language of one’s family, and this will be your first language in most cases. Exceptions occur with situations that are not normal, and that usually involve immigrant families.

What is the point in having terms like mother tongue and first language if they both have the same meaning? Is there anything different between them?

What IS The Difference Between Mother Tongues, First Languages, And Native Languages?

With these three terms, there must be some difference between them right?

Essentially mother tongues, first languages, and native languages are all indistinguishable to each other. They all refer to the language you learned earliest, by one’s family, and continue to speak today.

There are always exceptions and gray areas, but the rule is that all three terms mean one and the same. Just take a look at the definitions of these terms:

Mother Tongue: one’s native language (Definition provided by Merriam-Webster)

First Language: the language that someone learns to speak first (Definition provided by Cambridge Dictionary)

Native Speaker: a person who learned to speak the language of the place where he or she was born as a child rather than learning it as a foreign language (Definition provided by Merriam-Webster)

Though there are many who like to give them another meaning, the basic and accepted definitions for these terms are pretty cut and dry. Where does that leave us?

If English is your first language, then that will also make it your mother tongue and native language.

Can You Have Two First Languages?

One last question someone might have, is can you have two first languages? Or, is it as silly as it sounds?

Practically someone cannot have multiple first languages, since it would require parents to teach their child two languages at once, and said child to acquire them both at once. In theory that might sound plausible, in reality it is highly unlikely. One will be inevitably learned from the other.

Like with native languages, having more than one first language is unlikely at best, and down right impossible at worst.

The Final Talking Point On English As Your First Language But Not Native…

You can’t have English as your first language, and in turn not your native language. This goes both ways, since first and native languages are really referring to the same concept.

The first language one learns, normally taught by one’s parents, will be your first language, native language, and even mother tongue.

If you want to learn more about languages, languages learning, or even specifically English then check out my other articles.

Jackie Booe

Jackie Booe is a licensed teacher for elementary through high school in 3 states. She is a former adjunct professor at the undergraduate level and certified to teach elementary, secondary English, and English Language Learners. She was a mentor for many education interns, department leader at various levels and organizations, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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