Someone just told me "mother tongue" is exactly the same as "native language". I may be wrong, but I think the first one is not a good translation.

Am I wrong?

  • 2
    What did you think was the difference? And what does "the first one is not a good translation (thanks google translate)" mean?
    – Martin F
    Commented Jan 19, 2014 at 5:49
  • Google translate => If you try to translate from French "Langue maternelle" to English, you get "Mother tongue" => If you try to translate from English "Native language" to French, you get "Langue maternelle". Two differents results. Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 8:27
  • From what you say, and i have just confirmed it, i infer that Google Translate believes that "mother tongue" is exactly the same as "native language". I still believe your question needs some editing. One item could be to include the details you just gave about GT.
    – Martin F
    Commented Jan 20, 2014 at 17:15

5 Answers 5


"Mother tongue" and "native language" are set phrases that both refer to the language one has started learning from birth. One generally associates "mother" with "tongue" and "native" with "language" but it is sometimes found the other way round. "Language" and "tongue" are here synonyms.

I would say "mother" or "native" is not identical though. When using "native" the reference is more to the country/nation. When using "mother" the reference is to the parent (mother or father), which gives it a warmth and personal relationship that the word "native" doesn't have.

I've found a sentence that I think can explain what I mean about "native" and "mother" although native being used here in association with country:

As a parent living far from my native country I have often experienced the fear that my children would not learn their mother language well.

In this whole text the use of "mother tongue" is not identical and I doubt the person who wrote it would have used "native language" (or "native tongue") where she used "mother language".

  • I don't think 'indifferent' means what you expect it to mean. It means 'you don't care one way or the other. Rather than litotes, just use '... are not identical though'.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 18:41
  • @Mitch: Thanks, you have perfectly understood what I meant. English not being my native language my tongue sometimes slips.
    – None
    Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 18:45
  • An edit changing the meaning of my answer had been made by community. I reverted to my original answer and if anyone disagrees they should do it in a comment and we can discuss as civilised people.
    – None
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 6:20
  • I thought that edit wasn't great, but I believe there was only a typo, "form birth"; however users with low rep cannot edit posts unless six characters or more have been changed, and hence the rewording. I wouldn't "blame" the anonymous editor but the users who allowed the edit to go through. See my meta post on the topic.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 6:26
  • @Mari-LouA: the edit was about reverting "from birth" to "as a child" which changed the entire meaning - and which I consider as false in the context of my answer. Babies and children are entirely different entities. We learn one language from birth (and that starts in the mother's womb, we know babies hear sounds in the womb that begin to shape their sense of language), as children we can learn lots of languages, it is an entirely different process of learning.
    – None
    Commented Sep 22, 2015 at 6:35

Multilingualism adds a questionable level of complexity to the established equations.If we were to define the terms based on today's demography then it sure is relevant to consider the following. And FYKI monolingualism is a thing of the past.

Wiki states:

"One can have two or more native languages, thus being a native bilingual or indeed multilingual. The order in which these languages are learned is not necessarily the order of proficiency. For instance, a French-speaking couple might have a daughter who learned French first, then English; but if she were to grow up in an English-speaking country, she would likely be most proficient in English."

Wiki defines the concerned terms by establishing a differential approach.

Defining mother tongue:

Based on origin: the language(s) one learned first (the language(s) in which one has
established the first long-lasting verbal contacts).
Based on internal identification: the language(s) one identifies with/as a speaker
Based on external identification: the language(s) one is identified with/as a
speaker of, by others.
Based on competence: the language(s) one knows best.
Based on function: the language(s) one uses most.

A native speaker is defined according to the guidelines that:

The individual acquired the language in early childhood
The individual has intuitive knowledge of the language
The individual is able to produce fluent, spontaneous discourse
The individual is competent in communication
The individual identifies with or is identified by a language community
The individual does not have a foreign accent
  • 1
    To be clear, do you intend your answer to be the quotations, or the declaration that the quoted sources are incorrect? I don't know whether to up- or down-vote...
    – user867
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 0:32
  • Quoted sources are correct. Well, these are the points outlined in the Wiki which I happen to agree upon. Feel free to cast your up-vote. (:
    – Gil
    Commented Jan 22, 2014 at 1:19

Mother tongue and Native language have similar, meanings and are often actually interchangeable, however there is a subtle difference.

Native language refers to the language of the area the person grows up in. For example, growing up in the United States, your native language would be English. It's the language used every day everywhere you go by the vast majority of the people there.

Mother tongue refers to the language of the family you grew up in. The language your parents spoke in the house, or to each other out-and-about if applicable. Often, parents will use the same language as that of the region (parents in the U.S. speaking English) however it can differ. Take for example a family of immigrants from Mexico to the United States. In their house and with family/friends they may use Spanish. But at school, restaurants, stores, etc they would use English. In this case, the native language is English and the mother tongue is Spanish.

Typically, the two will refer to the same language, in which case they are interchangeable; however, in some cases they may differ.


As someone growing up in a Malaysian-Chinese household, I always consider my mother tongues to be the various Chinese dialects while my native languages are Malay (Bahasa Malaysia) and English, since the latter two I began learning concurrently and have been ever since. So for me, there are very distinctive, though as many of you have pointed out, subtle differences between the two.

  • 4
    Welcome to ELU.SE. This has the makings of a good answer; could you expand on what the "subtle differences" are? How do you determine which language is "mother tongue" vs "native language"? At the moment, it's not much more than an anecdote, unfortunately.
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 6:38
  • Is this a common understanding or just your own? Can you provide any evidence either way? Commented Jul 18, 2014 at 7:26

Mother tongue and native language mean the same thing. Both words share an etymology. I missed this fact earlier and my thanks to the sharp-eyed commenters who caught it.

  • So this is the same, but only in countries which origins are Latin? (Sorry for my poor english) Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 17:27
  • The are the same in English-speaking countries and, I would imagine, in most other countries where the language has been influenced by Latin. English, of course, is a Germanic language but has been highly influenced by French and Latin. Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 17:33
  • 3
    @OlivierPons the meaning is that mother tongue and native language can mean the same thing because, in English, tongue can be used as a synonym for language. This would not be true in a language where people do not use their word for tongue the same way.
    – asfallows
    Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 17:35
  • There's no play on words in mother tongue. One of the definition of tongues in the OED: The speech or language of a people or race
    – None
    Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 17:38
  • 2
    @MichaelOwenSartin It's not really a play on words. Both tongue and lingua have a common root in PIE which can mean speech, language, or the organ of speech--and it has been historically used for this meaning in English as well as Latin. Commented Jan 16, 2014 at 17:39

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