What Is My Native Language? (Answered)


People learn languages all the time, for reasons ranging from career benefits to appreciating the language’s culture. However, there is one language that holds a special significance that few others can reproduce, your native language. Due to this many wish to know more about their native language, as such many ask: what is my Native language?

Your native language is the one you learned at an early age, by the encouragement of your parents. Native languages generally mirror the most popular language where one was born. We can know our native language by identifying the one most prevalent in our families and culture.

We can find our native languages by considering what we spoke when growing up, or still speak now. This may not be as easy as it sounds, since some might have grown up with multiple languages in their household. If that is the case, what would their native language be? What more can we learn about native languages?

What Is A Native Language?

To know our native language, we must first understand what it means to have one in the first place. There is an obvious distinction made between a native language to a second language, implying some difference.

If we wish to know our own native language, we should ask the question: what is a native language?

A native language is usually a one in which a person holds a significant proficiency. Most acquire one at a young age through their familial influences. Generally a native language is continued to be used throughout a person’s life, especially if living in the Country of one’s origin.

Native languages are important specifically for language learners and lovers because they affect how well we learn others later in life.

As is discussed in this study, those who speak their native language often see a more negative effect in how well they can pronounce their second languages.

This pretty much means that they will have an foreign accent when speaking their second language regardless of their proficiency in it. To help remove accents from native languages, it takes speaking foreign ones more often.

Related to this is how you learn a second language, namely through the use of your native language. On the other hand most native languages are not acquired by the use of another.

Learning a native language is essentially like learning to walk, while learning a second language is like learning to ride a bike. You need to have a native language to learn another, but not vice versa.

If this is what we mean by a native language, then how can we know our own?

How Do We Know Our Native Language?

It might seem like a base question for some to wonder what their native language is, but it is not unreasonable due to how so many different definitions today get muddled and misused.

As such we can know our native language because of two factors that I pointed out earlier:

  1. They are learned at a young age. This means that the moment you are mentally able you begin to learn your native language to some extent.
  2. The use of another language was not present in acquiring your native language.

Generally speaking the language one speaks on a regular basis will be your native language, with some exceptions. Part of the reason for this is how they are geographically tied to regions. If you live in the country you were born in, your native language will nearly always be one of the Country’s national languages.

Can You Lose A Native Language?

Could you lose your native language, and if so, how would this affect us finding our own native language?

With enough neglect, you can lose your proficiency in your native language. The reason for this is really a mix of time and geographical location.

If you stop using your native language for many years then you will slowly lose parts of it. This tends not to happen unless one lives in a foreign country for many years. For most, if they don’t use their native language, it is rarely more than a year or two.

More than likely you will never go for years not speaking your native language due to family ties. You will probably never completely lose your ability, only lose your skill in speaking it well.

We had a neighbor that was in her sixties and had immigrated from Germany 30 years prior. My husband was eager to speak German with her, but to his surprise she wasn’t willing. She finally told him that she hadn’t used it more than a few times since coming to the U.S. She had forgotten much and felt what she did remember was outdated.

A native language is normally decided upon by your parents. We don’t get to choose our native languages. Nor can we choose the geographical location that influences what our parents speak and teach us. 

To really lose your native language, you would have to distance yourself from both your parents and where you were born for many years. Only small percentages of the world’s population live more than a few miles from their family homes.

In the US, 72% of people live in or near their hometowns.

Can Someone Have Two Native Languages?

If we now have a better understanding of what a native language is, then what else can we learn about how they affect us and how we use them? The more we know, the more we understand about our own native language.

For starters, what are some common questions or dilemmas people might have regarding them?

One frequent issue people run across is whether or not you can have two native languages. If a native language is essentially the one you grew up learning, then is it even possible to learn two or more languages that young?

You can have two Native languages or more, albeit it is rather uncommon for many. It requires you to live in a Country that has several national languages or common ones, and all of them are encouraged in daily use. Thus, you can have several native languages.

Some still might have a hard time wrapping their heads around the concept of having two native languages, and there is no problem with that.

It might be weird for some, especially for us in the United States or the United Kingdom, to see how that might actually work. Let’s go deeper into how you can have two native languages.

How Can You Have Two Native languages?

If it is possible to know more native languages, then the obvious question now would be: how can you have two native languages?

You can have two native languages because the same principle applies as if it were just one language. Namely, learning a native language cannot be done through the use of another, the learning process is more akin to mimicking, and more than one can be acquired at a time.

By definition native languages are learned by the very young. They are usually acquired beginning at the toddler stage since they start to mimic their parents around this age (because parents are awesome, right?).

This means that there is nothing necessarily barring you from picking up more than one. It would just mean a lot more work on the parents’ part. It also will usually delay advanced speech and reading in children. Yet, there is no need to worry. They catch up and come out the other side natively fluent in not one, but two languages.

You would have to be exposed to them regularly and ultimately encouraged by your parents to learn two languages starting in the earliest years of your life.

Many in the Western Hemisphere are not used to situations like this. Instead they typically have one native language and learn others later in their life if they so choose.

Could there be a limit to the number of native languages you can have? Is there some limit with our minds at such a young age, that we can only learn so many languages, and thus have only so many native ones?

How Many Native Languages Can You Speak?

There is no recognized definitive number of the languages you could learn at a young age. Then how could we get a general idea of a number that is feasibly possible, if there is no concrete answer?

Well the general consensus is that anything more than three is not something that is really in the realm of possibility for most. Yet, even three native languages is something rare and difficult to actually accomplish.

One example of those who have three native languages are the people of Switzerland. Unlike the US. or the UK., Switzerland has four national languages,

These languages are:

  • German
  • French
  • Italian
  • Romansh

Why are there four national languages rather than three? Romansh is used significantly less, and for most is learned later in life. So, this is an example of people who can have up to three native languages, if they are taught early enough.

Yet, does this translate to many of the Swiss being natively trilingual? No, not in reality. Even the geographic distinctions and cultural tendencies in this small country create language boundaries that many don’t cross.

Would Knowing Two Native Languages Make You Bilingual?

Bilingualism: the ability to speak two languages (Definition provided by Merriam-Webster)

Yes, speaking two native languages would make you bilingual. Or in the case of Switzerland, knowing at least three native languages would make them trilingual.

Many countries in Europe have similar situations because of the relatively small size of the countries and the many languages spoken within them. It is not uncommon for tourists to attempt phrases in the local language in countries like Germany and The Netherlands only to be answered in their own native tongue!

For more information regarding language learning, look through some of my other articles!

Native Language Vs. Mother Tongue

We discussed what a native languages are, how we can acquire them, and how many we can know. How do they compare to a “mother tongue”. Is this just another way of saying the same thing or is there a difference?

What is the difference between a Native language and mother tongue? Or to be more dramatic: Native Languages Vs. Mother Tongues.

A native language is normally a commonly spoken one in the country of origin, whereas a mother tongue is related to the family’s ancestral language. This way one could have both a native language and a mother tongue, if their situation early in life allows for it.

How could we understand this better?

It’s like this: a Russian family emigrating to the US will adopt English because it is the most spoken in the country. Yet, they might continue teaching their young children Russian due to their long family history. These children would then have Russian considered as their mother tongue, and English as their native language.

Most of the time the two terms are used interchangeably, and just means someone’s first language. To have both a native and mother tongue requires a unique start in life that few have.

Defining the two terms further will help us understand what these languages are to each other.

The Exact Definitions of Native Languages and Mother Tongues

To help us understand each term better, and how they relate, we should know their exact definitions.

  • Mother Tongue: one’s native language. (definition provided by Merriam-Webster)
  • Native Language: 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)

This is how both terms can be commonly interchangeable, since for the most part they mean the same thing. So, why was I talking about how mother tongue refers to the ancestral language of a family?

The two terms mean the same thing, yet there is nuance here. Mother tongue can be used to differentiate two native languages from each other like in the Russian family scenario. Native language can be seen as bound to place and Mother tongue can be seen as bound to familial and ancestral ties. Both share much in common in the end.

Can You Have Two Mother Tongues?

If a native language and mother tongue practically mean the same thing, albeit with one caveat, then would that mean you could have two mother tongues?

You can have two mother tongues with it’s common definition, namely an alternate term for a native language. The less known use of the word refers to an ancestral language within your family, and you can have two of those too. Having two of either is unlikely, but not impossible.

For the same reason you can have two native languages, is why you can have two mother tongues. Most won’t have two mother tongues, at least in Western Hemisphere, but it can happen.

To reiterate an important point, it is more likely that someone will only have one language growing up, and learn others later in their life.

Examples Of Native Languages

We’ve talked a lot about native languages at this point, all the way from: what does it mean, to: how can we know our own. Our overall question is what is my native language, so another way we can learn the answer to that is to see some examples of native languages.

An example of a native language would be English in the United States, or Greek in Greece. Native languages are almost always the language that is spoken where one is born, as such they are connected to one’s culture and way of life. Other examples would be Italian in Italy, or Polish in Poland.

There are plenty of examples of native languages, and it is pretty simple to find out which ones aren’t. The most spoken language in a country is more than likely the native language for most of the people living there. While others are just what they learn later in life, thus they would not be native.

Other examples of native languages:

  • Being born in Japan would mean that you would speak natively Japanese.
  • If you’re born in Australia, then English would be your native language.
  • German would be your native language if you were born in Germany.

The Most Spoken Native Languages

When considering the most spoken native languages, we must separate those who speak natively and those who speak it as a second language.

With that is mind, we can find these languages to be the most natively spoken:

  • Mandarin Chinese, with 921.2 million
  • Spanish, with 471.4 million
  • English, with 369.9 million
  • Hindi, with 342.2 million
  • French, with 79.6 million
  • Portuguese, with 232.4 million
  • Bengali, with 228.7 million
  • Japanese, with 126.3 million
  • German, with 76.6 million
  • Russian, with 153.7 million

All of these numbers are provided by Ethnologue.

These numbers are of those who directly speak it as a native language, giving us many great examples to see the real world application of what we have been talking about.

One thing to note is that all of these have a lot more speakers if you count those who speak it as a second language.

One significant difference is found with English. It is the most widely spoken language in the world when English as a second language speakers are added.

Is English My Native Language?

After reading all this by now you just might be thinking: is English my native language? Don’t worry, we can figure that out together.

To know if English is your native language, you must consider two things, first whether or not you learned it at a young age, then secondly if you learned it through the use of another language. Native languages must be taught at a very young age, and must be the first language to be learnt.

If the answer to those two points is yes, then we can safely say that English is your native language. On the other hand, if you didn’t learn it at a young age, but you still speak it then it would be considered a second language.

What do I mean by young age, exactly?

I’m talking about the earliest you could possibly learn a language, a native language essentially is the first one you will learn (there are some minor nuances that we’ll get into in the next section).

What Is A First Language?

If a native language is usually the earliest language you will learn, and mother tongue points to cultural and familial roots, would one of these then be your first language?

A first language is a more informal term referring to a native language. If you speak more than one native language, then naturally one could not be your first. All first languages are either your native or mother tongue, but not all native languages are your first.

A mother tongue could also be your first language, if we are using the definition of it regarding a family language.

Can You Lose Your First Language?

Using the same logic with the answer for can you lose your native language, we can determine whether we can lose our first language.

You can lose your first language if you severely neglect using the language. Many years would have to pass before you could completely lose your skill in it. This tends to be very unlikely for most people, due to families normally sharing the language and living in the country of one’s birth.

Losing your first language is possible, but very rare. For the most part you will never have to worry about losing your first and native languages. The worst thing that usually happens is someone becoming ‘rusty’ after extended neglect.

As an example, my husband learned German to a conversationally fluent level. At one point he took a break from studying it for about 5 years. Yet, after only a few weeks of speaking, he felt that most of his ability came back. If you do feel that your language skills have declined, it will not take that long

The Final Talking Point On What Is My Native Language…

You can learn your native language by realizing two important key factors:

  • That you must be very young when learning it.
  • No other language was used to learn it.

These are generalities to be sure, but for the most part they apply to everyone. If you have several native languages, then one would be used to help learn the others.

Overall, we can know our native language by identifying the first languages we were taught.

If you want to know more about languages, and about learning them, then I have plenty of articles just for you.

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, has taught and coordinated professional development for teachers and educators, and professionally tutored in a multitude of subjects.

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