Word of the Day

mother tongue

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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter


the main language that you learn as a child

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The compound noun mother tongue is formed from the nouns ‘mother’, and ‘tongue’ meaning ‘language’, and was first used in English in the early 15th century.


Today is International Mother Language Day, a UNESCO-sponsored event aimed at promoting linguistic and cultural diversity and multilingualism that has been held every year since 2000. There are a number of different ways of referring to the first language that someone learns as a child, including native language or tongue, mother language or mother tongue, first language and L1. In terms of usage, mother language is a slightly odd choice for the name of this day since it is one of the least frequently used: mother tongue and native tongue are both much more frequent, as are first language and L1. The most frequent term in the large corpus used to compile Macmillan Dictionary is native language, which – at around 33,000 citations – is over 13 times as frequent as mother language with roughly 2,500. Mother tongue is the oldest of these terms, having been used since the early 15th century, with native language coming into use a few decades later.


“For us Indians, I don’t think English can ever exude that magic of emotions which our mother tongue can.”
(Kailash Kher, musician)

“Welsh is my mother tongue, and my children speak it.”
(Bryn Terfel, singer)

Related words

first language, home language, L1, L2, second language

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

About the author

Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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