Mother Tongue? Father Tongue? What’s it all about?

Traditionally, bilingualism research used the term “Mother Tongue” to describe the language spoken by the mother. Because there is no use of “Father Tongue” there is an implication that the language that the father speaks is of lesser importance. Is this true? Is the “mother tongue” more important? The answer is, of course, “no”. The language spoken by each of the parents is important to the child, and both should be acquired. In order to recognize this fact, researchers moved towards the terminology “L1” and “L2”. We used these terms for a long time, with the added complication that a child could have two “L1” languages, if they had two languages from birth. So the obvious drawback of this paradigm is that the use of “1” and “2” indicates a priority system or a sequencing, where one language comes first, and the other follows. So, back to the drawing board, and now we are all meant to use “Language A” and “Language Alpha” in situations where children are learning two languages simultaneously. Therefore, the mother’s language may be “A” and the father’s language “Alpha”, or the language in the home may be “A” and the language outside the home “Alpha”. The point of these new names is to remove any insinuations of inequality between the languages.
Now, it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, so I often find myself using the “old” terms, just because they are what I have always known. I do, however, insist on the point that “father tongue” is important. It is still a fact that more mothers stay home with their children while fathers work than the opposite (at least with the families I work with) so very often the “father tongue” needs more attention and planning than the language spoken by the mother. In order to help out all the dads who worry about passing their language on to their children, here are some tips.
The most important kind of input for language is “infant directed speech” (IDS). This is when we talk to babies, looking at them directly, and using simple, clear language. This does *not* have to be “baby talk”! In the early months (yes, I said months), spend time, every day, speaking directly to your baby. Consider mixed input, where you are showing them things and talking about the items, consider telling little, easy stories. Consider talking to them about body parts, clothing, food etc – items that are concrete and in their environment.
Never underestimate the importance of “Daddy Story Time”. Read to your little one every day, using simple books, and drawing their attention to items in the stories. Increase the amount of interaction as they get older and more able. Use longer, more complex stories to stimulate cognitive growth and conversation in your language, and take time to talk about vocabulary.
*Don’t* expect that Mama putting on a DVD in your language during the day will help your children – this is not IDS, and it is not helpful for language acquisition. You have to do this yourself!
Many families I have worked with have classified the father as “not a talker” and discussed how much the Dad struggles to interact on a regular, meaningful basis with a baby or small child. Often these Dads were tired after a long day of work, and spend a very limited amount of time with their young children. These are all understandable facts of modern life, but the bottom line is if you want your children to have their “Father Tongue” then it is the father’s job to pass it on – take that job seriously!

6 thoughts on “Mother Tongue? Father Tongue? What’s it all about?

  1. Great post! I’ve always thought about it. In Polish, we say “język ojczysty”, the fatherlands language”- which is inclusive of both of the parents, but then of course, with expat and bilingual children we have the problem with terms like “nationality”, “fatherland”, “home country”, etc. So I even wrote a post about it where I propsed the term ‘family languages”- it’s not very scientific, but it is inclusive of both parents, siblings who speak different languages, and doesn’t differentiate between better languages and worse langauages.

  2. I am a father who is not a talker. I spend more time with my son than some of the people you have described in your article, but it does worry me that I don’t talk enough.

    One strategy I have come up with recently is to ask my son questions about his day; Did you go to daycare? Who did you play with? Who drove you to ganny’s house? Etc. I am not sure he understands the questions, but he does give a response of sorts, either verbal or through body language. I then respond to these answers and have a mini-, very one-sided, conversation.

  3. Nice post! There is little talk of bilingual homes where the mother speaks mostly in one language and the father another. Other than talking about simultaneous bilingualism, terms such as mother tongue and L1 L2 are oblivious to such a reality.

  4. I understand it’s called mother tongue but coming to African extent if parents have different tongues we don’t speak the language of the mother,we speak the language of the father yet it’s still called mother tongue why not father tongue because it’s the language of the father?

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