It seems that the term 'first language', 'native language', 'mother tongue' each may have some different connotations or unnecessary implications of political correctness to some people. 'L1' seems to be a strong candidate, but I'm afraid some non-English native speakers may not understand the term instantly. I'm running some survey and want to add this question to a group of people most of whose L1 is not English.

  • 2
    The term mother tongue is politically incorrect? Since when? – Mari-Lou A Mar 15 '15 at 9:41
  • I just came across a posting while browing on this subject where someone claiming so, but I'm not sure if it is widely conceived so. – andy Mar 15 '15 at 9:52
  • AFAIK it's not, and it would be the one I'd pick. First language could be ambiguous, maybe as an infant I spoke one language then moved to a different country and "unlearned" it, or just failed to fully master it. ESL and EFL folk do use L1 but no one outside that realm (except linguists and perhaps learners) would know what you're talking about. EDIT: Wikipedia seems to disagree with me. – Mari-Lou A Mar 15 '15 at 9:57
  • Speak your strongest language and see how they respond. After that, follow Burling's Law of Bilingual Communication recursively: The weaker speaker's weaker language is avoided. – John Lawler Mar 15 '15 at 18:41

Key the following into Wikipedia search and you would land yourself at the page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_language.

  • Primary language
  • First Language

Otherwise, you might also use

  • Most-proficient language
  • Most proficiently written or spoken language

Therefore ask the person ... What is your - Primary language - First Language - Most-proficient language - Most proficiently written or spoken language

pro·fi·cient (prə-fĭsh′ənt)


Having or marked by an advanced degree of competence, as in an art, vocation, profession, or branch of learning.


A person who exhibits such competence; an expert. [Latin prōficiēns, prōficient-, present participle of prōficere, to make progress; see profit.] pro·fi′cient·ly adv.


proficient, adept, skilled, skillful, accomplished, expert These adjectives mean having or showing knowledge, ability, or skill, as in a profession or field of study. Proficient implies an advanced degree of competence acquired through training: is proficient in Greek and Latin. Adept suggests a natural aptitude improved by practice: became adept at cutting the fabric without using a pattern. Skilled implies sound, thorough competence and often mastery, as in an art, craft, or trade: a skilled gymnast who won an Olympic medal. Skillful adds to skilled the idea of natural dexterity in performance or achievement: is skillful in the use of the hand loom. Accomplished bears with it a sense of refinement after much training and practice: an accomplished violinist who played the sonata flawlessly. Expert applies to one with consummate skill and command: an expert negotiator who struck a deal between disputing factions.

American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition. Copyright © 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

  • Thanks, your reply is very helpful. The term "primary language" sounds fair to me for my own purpose. – andy Mar 15 '15 at 9:53

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