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What does your mother language mean to you?

We each have different linguistic repertoires and ways of defining what our mother tongues mean to us. On this day let’s share and celebrate our differences. What does your mother tongue mean to you? Our directors, Charlotte Hemmings, Ebany Dohle, Samantha Goodchild and Karolin Grzech answer this question:

CH: On International Mother Tongue Day, we are reflecting on what our mother tongues mean to us. My mother tongue is English, which is incidentally also my “father tongue” and the language used by the vast majority of my family. It is something that I rarely think about – perhaps because I have the luxury of living in a country where English is the national language and working in an academic field where English is the de-facto language of wider communication. As a result, I have focused more on learning new languages, and thought more about how the languages I learn and study reflect different aspects of my life and different facets of my identity. Nonetheless, English plays an important role in almost everything I do and is the language that I use on a day-to-day basis for most things. Therefore, it seems fitting this International Mother Tongue Day to celebrate it!

ED: This idea of a mother tongue or native language is one that I have always struggled with. I grew up with four different languages around me (Spanish, German, Portuguese and English) and in light of different experiences in each of these languages during the course of my life, I have developed different levels and types of proficiency in each. In the most literal sense, my mother tongue, my mother’s language, is Spanish. It is the language that connects me to my family and my cultural heritage. German, is my father’s language, and through it I connect with his family and without feeding into stereotype, my own sense of personal and professional development. Portuguese is the language of the country I grew up in. It is the language I learned to relate to others and develop social relationships in. It represents laughter, friendship and leisure. Finally English is the language of education, the language I have developed into an adult in and the language which has provided many opportunities to travel and expand in academic spheres. It is the language for self-expression and my go-to language for writing. Our languages and the choices we make to speak them can be deeply personal. It is thanks to the contrast of these languages that I am able to better understand myself and fully appreciate the diverse contexts in which languagage are spoken. There are complex social, political and economic dynamics at the heart of each choice, and I’m not even a speaker of a minority or endangered language! So on this day, I encourage everyone to celebrate their individual and unique linguistic repertoires, be they comprised of different languages, accents, signs or vocabularies.

SG: I’ve never particularly liked using the word “tongue” to refer to a language and that was even before I studied linguistics – it was just a gut feeling I had! (Now I really don’t like it as I feel that it reinforces stereotypes surrounding the primacy of speech or spoken languages in communication, so it excludes sign languages for example.) However, 21st February is generally referred to as “mother language day”. I wouldn’t describe any language I speak as my “mother language”, although English would certainly fit the bill, as I have had the privilege to be raised in a family who almost exclusively use English, in a country where this is also the de-facto national language, the language of education and the language which I now use for academic purposes (just like Charlotte!). Yet I have become multilingual through formal education. I have a passion for languages and language learning, which spurred me to study linguistics and become interested in minority and endangered languages and multilingualism. On International Mother Language Day, which not only commemorates “mother languages” but also promotes linguistic diversity and multilingualism, I won’t be celebrating English as my “mother language”, but rather I will celebrate it as one part of my own multilingualism.

KG: To me, the ‘Mother Language Day’ has always been more celebrating linguistic diversity as a global phenomenon than about celebrating any language in particular, not even my own ‘mother’ (and ‘father’) tongue – Polish. I have grown up in a monolingual Polish environment, but one where it was always emphasised that learning other languages is important, and a crucial part of education. The emphasis, however, was always on languages of wider communication. The fact that human cultures and languages are so diverse has always fascinated me, but it wasn’t until I started studying linguistics that I understood something crucial: that the view of languages as ‘more’ and ‘less’ worth learning, depending on the number of speakers, is not an objective truth – it is a value judgement. For those of us who have a luxury of having a state, an infrastructure, an educational system properly supporting our native language or languages, it might seem that language learning is mostly about better professional opportunities. For the speakers of a vast majority of the world’s languages, however, this is not the case. On February 21st, I am celebrating linguistic diversity in all its dazzling beauty, and all languages alike – those that have millions of speakers, and those that have only a handful.