“Mother Tongue” vs. “Native Language” – Difference Explained

You may have come across the phrases “mother tongue” and “native language” whether conversationally or in written works. However, considering they are used quite consistently; folks are often confused at what exactly these two phrases mean and whether or not they are used interchangeably.

What Is The Difference Between “Mother Tongue” and “Native Language”?

“Mother tongue” and “native language” are set phrases that refer to the language that someone started learning from the time of birth or early childhood. However, the term “mother” is generally a reference to the parent (mother or father), while “native” references the country or nation of origin.

mother tongue vs native language

Therefore, the phrase “mother tongue” is often used to give a sense of warmth or personal relationship that the term “native language” does not. It’s also important to note that “tongue” and “language” are considered to be synonyms or share a similar meaning.

What Does “Mother Tongue” Mean?

The phrase “mother tongue” is considered to refer to the language that someone has grown up speaking from early childhood, or from the time of their first words. Our “mother tongue” is thought to be instilled in us from birth, as this is the language our parents or guardians speak.

As we can see, Cambridge Dictionary defines “mother tongue” as the first language that you learn when you are a baby, rather than a language learned at school or as an adult. Therefore, we can consider all other languages we learn to be secondary, tertiary, etc.

We can now read over the following examples that highlight the use of this particular phrase:

  • My mother tongue is English, as it is the language that I grew up speaking in my parents’ household.
  • Only a small portion was translated into his mother tongue, which made reading the document very difficult for him.
  • He was able to understand both Italian and Greek, as well as his mother tongue – making him a very versatile employee.
  • Full command and understanding of your mother tongue are considered to be a large asset.
  • Their language is a very unique and special type of mother tongue – only known by small populations of people.

What Does “Native Language” Mean?

The phrase “native language” is also considered to refer to the language that someone has grown up speaking from early childhood or the time of their first words. However, our “native language” often refers to the influence of our country of origin, as opposed to our parents.

As we can see, Cambridge Dictionary defines “native” as relating to or describing someone’s country or place of birth or someone who was born in a particular country or place. Therefore, we can see how “native language” will refer to the language that is spoken throughout a country.

Looking over the following examples, we can see how we can appropriately use this phrase in a sentence:

  • A native language is learned from the time we first begin speaking and is often utilized throughout our lives.
  • The native language for those born and growing up in Canada is both French and English.
  • My native language is Spanish because I was born and raised in Spain.
  • He read the poem he wrote in his native language and although we couldn’t understand him, it sounded absolutely beautiful.
  • English is not my native language and I am finding it very difficult to learn and fully comprehend.

Are “Mother Tongue” And “Native Language” Used Differently In The UK And The US

The phrases “mother tongue” and “native language” are used differently within the UK and the US. As we can see from data provided by Google Ngram Viewer, in the present day in the UK, the phrase “mother tongue” is more commonly used.

mother tongue vs native language British English

However, the present-day difference in the use of “mother tongue” and “native language” is quite marginal. Since the late 1800’s “mother tongue” has been used more frequently, however, prior to that timeframe “native language” was more commonly used.

On the other hand, according to Google Ngram Viewer, in the US, the term “native language” is more commonly used in the present day. Unlike the UK, the difference in use between these two phrases is fairly substantial. However, the phrase “native language” only increased in use and popularity around the 1970s. Prior to this, from the 1840s on, “mother tongue” was the more commonly seen phrase.

mother tongue vs native language American English

Does “First Language” Mean The Same As “Mother Tongue” and “Native Language”?

The phrase “first language” is consistent in meaning with “mother tongue” and “native language”. As we can see, Cambridge Dictionary defines “first language” as the language that someone learns to speak first or the language you learn from your parents as you are growing up.

Therefore, if we hear or see someone use the phrase “first language” we can consider them to be discussing their “mother tongue” or “native language”.

Is It “Mother Tongue” Or “Mother Language”?

The correct phrase to utilize is “mother tongue”. The phrase “mother language” would generally not be misunderstood, however, it is incredibly uncommonly used. As we can see on Google Ngram Viewer, the phrase “mother tongue” is used frequently, whereas “mother language” is barely used at all.

mother tongue vs. mother language

This is consistent from the 1800s into the present day, where we can see that the use of “mother language” only increased in an extremely insignificant way.

Is It “Native Language” Or “Native Tongue”?

Both of the phrases “native language” and “native tongue” are used, however, generally speaking, the term “native language” is more commonly used. As we can see from the data presented by Google Ngram Viewer, “native language” is far more frequently used in the present day.

native tongue vs. native language

Although, it is worth mentioning that for large periods of time, in particular from 1850-to 1950, the use of these two phrases was quite consistent or interchangeable. “Native tongue” was the more popular phrase to use from 1800-1850, which showcases how the use of phrases changes over time in the English language.

Is It “Mother Tongue” or “Mother’s Tongue”?

The correct phrase to utilize is “mother tongue”, which refers to the first language you learn or the language that your parents speak and teach you from the time of early childhood. “Mother’s tongue” when written with the apostrophe, refers to the literal tongue inside your mother’s mouth.

“Mother Tongue” And “Native Language” Synonyms

We will now go over the following phrases that can be considered synonyms to the phrase “mother tongue” or “native language”:

  • First language
  • Home language
  • Native tongue
  • Parent language
  • Natal tongue
  • Vernacular