Difference between Mother Tongue and Heritage Language

What is the difference between Mother Tongue and Heritage Language? (5 standpoints of spotlight people overlook) Decoding Definitions Miniseries: Question #4

definition, miniseries

Examine the DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MOTHER TONGUE AND HERITAGE LANGUAGE, and how this matters for multilingual contexts and the recognition of cultural heritage alongside language proficiency.

Introduction: A different type of native speaker?

Welcome to the 4th instalment of our Miniseries “Decoding Definitions”. In the previous instalment, I promised to extend the disambiguation of “MOTHER TONGUE” vs “FIRST LANGUAGE” to “HERITAGE LANGUAGE”. So here I am, keeping the promise so that all our language educators can benefit from such close examination. With that said, do read my previous article to better make sense of the current one.

A key factor contributing to the confusion surrounding these three terms is the inherent difficulty in universally classifying languages within an identified repertoire for each individual (e.g. Spanish for any resident in USA). The existence of overlapping similarities, coupled with subtle differences, introduces a level of intricacy that necessitates careful consideration for accurate distinctions.

Plus, let’s not forget their interfaces with the elusive concept of “native speaker”. An individual can jolly well be identified as a native speaker of a particular language, and yet that same language might function as a “MOTHER TONGUE”, “FIRST LANGUAGE”, or “HERITAGE LANGUAGE”. Yet, there are instances where the same language may not neatly fit into any of these three categories.

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Difference between mother tongue and heritage language: Definitions first

Family, happy and children with a mother having fun with tongue
Photo from Envato Elements / An immigrant family having fun with tongues

Ok, let’s look at the usual “textbook definitions” first. For a start, MOTHER TONGUE generally refers to the language that an individual acquires early in life from his/her mother or primary caregiver (although it is very much assumed when the definition was coined that the mother is the primary caregiver). It is usually the language spoken within the family and community, and the language becomes the individual’s native language – the individual becomes a native speaker of that language.

On the other hand, the term HERITAGE LANGUAGE is used to identify languages other than the dominant language(s) in a given social context. In socio-political contexts where a dominant language exists, any language other than that dominant language can be considered a heritage language (Benmamoun, Montrul & Polinsky, 2013; De Bot & Gorter, 2005; Kelleher, 2010; Montrul, 2012, 2023; Polinsky & Kagan, 2007; Trifonas & Aravossitas, 2018; Van Deusen-Scholl, 2003).

These languages are often associated with minoritised communities within a society and delineates their cultural heritage in a certain sense (language is after all an important element of culture). For example, in the USA, where English is the dominant language, any language other than English (e.g. Spanish, Mandarin, Arabic) can be regarded a heritage language for the relevant speech communities even if they are massive as a population (e.g. approximately 13% of the US population speaks Spanish as a heritage language).

By just reviewing the textbook definitions, we might have noticed some intricate differences in between the lines. My goal hereafter is to furnish a comprehensive reply that squarely teases out the key distinctions between the two concepts in this guiding question:  What is the DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MOTHER TONGUE AND HERITAGE LANGUAGE?

I’d thus navigate to the heart of the nuances that distinguish both concepts from five standpoints:

  • Semantic focus
  • Context of language acquisition
  • Situational dynamics
  • Expectations on proficiency
  • Labels in education (and their connotations)

1. Semantic focus of the terms: what is implied by “mother” vs “heritage”?

Illustration of ancient cultural artefacts
Image generated by Autodraft / An illustration of ancient artefacts symbolising a culture that stretches long beyond the current

First things first, let’s get the issue of “tongue” and “language” out of the way, especially if you have not yet read my earlier article. The ‘tongue’ in MOTHER TONGUE is essentially a metaphor for ‘language’ – with reference to its Latin origin of lingua which means “language”. This implies that the semantic difference between MOTHER TONGUE and HERITAGE LANGUAGE, largely lies in “mother” vs “heritage”.

With ‘mother’, the role of the mother as the source of language input to the child is emphasised. In spite of the individual differences, the initial societal assumption when the term was coined was that mothers were the primary caregivers for children. Given that, mothers became the main provider of language input in which the children acquire their first language – the MOTHER TONGUE.

Sure thing, we know the primary caregivers can include siblings and the extended family. In fact, sometimes THE one caregiver which spends the most time with the child could be the father, a grandparent or a full-time babysitter with no familial blood ties. In any case, MOTHER TONGUE as a term highlights the individual experience of language acquisition within the family unit.

With ‘heritage’, however, the linkage is extended. We can definitely argue that heritage begins within the family unit, and that the mother (or any caregiver with cultural ties) plays an integral role in inter-generational cultural transmission. That said and all, the term ‘heritage’ implies a larger connection to a particular community over time and space.

In that sense, while MOTHER TONGUE places the individual as the focal attention for definition, HERITAGE LANGUAGE somewhat foregrounds the speech community of a language in question and the cultural and historical context in which the language is rooted. It recognises the pertinence of language as an element of culture, and thus its connection to a specific culture, traditions, and history.

2. Context of language acquisition: is it a first language (L1) or second language (L2)?

Happy children taking a selfie
Photo from Envato Elements / Happy children taking a selfie with tongues stuck out – what is their language?

We have established that a MOTHER TONGUE is usually one which is acquired as a first language (L1). In the context of individuals with more than one language in the linguistic environment (e.g. bilinguals / multilinguals), they would thus have more than one MOTHER TONGUE.

Built on this assumption, acquisition of a MOTHER TONGUE is usually taken to assume that the individuals will receive substantial exposure to the language in the home or immediate surroundings (e.g. in the community). In time, these individuals are expected become native speakers of the language in question. In reality, we know this is not to be taken for granted, as speakers may use the MOTHER TONGUE like a second language (L2) later in life due to factors like incomplete acquisition or language attrition (link) due to different life circumstances (e.g. migration).

Regardless of the outcome, however, the typical expected roadmap of a MOTHER TONGUE acquisition follows that of L1 more than L2. The definition does not necessarily allude to any real challenge that an individual might encounter in the acquisition process. The same does not speak for the acquisition of a HERITAGE LANGUAGE.

When a HERITAGE LANGUAGE is defined as such, it is already inferred within the term that the specific language identified is socio-politically “minoritised” and faces competition from a more powerful and dominant societal language (Montrul, 2012, 2023; Polinsky & Kagan, 2007; Van Deusen-Scholl, 2003).

What this suggests for the acquisition context is that sources of language input are mostly restricted to the home domain, albeit with possibly additional input from extended relatives or closely related community members sharing the same language. At this stage, the HERITAGE LANGUAGE may not be very much different from MOTHER TONGUE as defined.

As the individual grows and participates more widely in other social circles, the exposure to the HERITAGE LANGUAGE diminishes and the individual usually experience a shift to more frequent use of the majority language instead. This unfolding of events is more frequently tacitly expected from the perspective of HERITAGE LANGUAGE acquisition, and not so much for MOTHER TONGUE acquisition.

Such are already the more privileged instances. Where families have experienced inter-generational language attrition, the HERITAGE LANGUAGE may not even be used much at home – it is not a MOTHER TONGUE per se by the strictest definition. In such cases, the individual may only start learning the HERITAGE LANGUAGE in formal schooling if the system provides for it. More often than not, they might completely not be exposed to it at all and it is lost from the heritage within the family (e.g. no more transmission to the next generation, and thus hardly considered a MOTHER TONGUE).

3. Expectations on proficiency: is the language used as a primary language / dominant language?

Confident arabic speaker
Photo from Envato Elements / Confident Arabic speaker presenting to her peers

Given the acquisition context, we may also extrapolate the trajectories of the typical MOTHER TONGUE speaker in relation to the HERITAGE LANGUAGE speaker. For the typical MOTHER TONGUE speaker, we generally envisage that he/she would grow into the idealised native speakers of that language and possess a high level of language proficiency. They are typically able to communicate fluently, accurately, and confidently in the MOTHER TONGUE and use it as a primary / dominant language (e.g. English speakers in the US, UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand; French speakers in France; Spanish speakers in Spain, Mexico and Costa Rica).

With a typical HERITAGE LANGUAGE speaker, the particular language may not be fully developed due to the extenuating circumstances as illustrated in the previous section. Let’s not even consider those that do not have much opportunity in been exposed to the language, but those that could actually acquire the HERITAGE LANGUAGE as a MOTHER TONGUE. When competition sets in such that they are more or less required to use more of the majority societal language instead of the HERITAGE LANGUAGE (e.g. schooling, work), we can hardly expect that the HERITAGE LANGUAGE is used a primary / dominant language.

Let’s get things straight though, that I am not suggesting that heritage speakers are absolutely deprived of the possibility to become L1 users of their HERITAGE LANGUAGE. Typically when languages are defined as HERITAGE LANGUAGEs, it just mean that these languages are minority languages. The circumstances thus mean that their speakers may have varying levels of language proficiency, ranging from basic conversational skills to more advanced levels of proficiency, though a smaller group (rare one though) that may still be indistinguishable from the perceived “native speakers”.

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4. Situational dynamics of definition: can the identification of an individual’s MOTHER TONGUE or HERITAGE LANGUAGE change?

Father and children in airport waiting
Photo from Envato Elements / A father waiting in the airport with his children – a journey of migration

Because of the assumptions associated with the concept of MOTHER TONGUE vis-à-vis HERITAGE LANGUAGE, we see that they can refer to one particular language within the linguistic repertoire of individuals in certain instances and different languages in others. However, I thought the standpoint in this section usually distinguishes the two quite well – not that they definitively denote different languages by this criterion but more that the criterion presents an important assumption within the definitions which provides the differentiating element.

First and foremost, let’s look at MOTHER TONGUE. It is defined to be the language(s) acquired in early childhood natively from the mother (or other primary caregivers). Past early childhood, even if we are unable to attain L1 proficiency in our MOTHER TONGUE(s), the established MOTHER TONGUE(s) remain unchanged. We cannot reverse time (at least not with current technologies and let’s not start some multi-versal threat by doing so) to acquire different language(s), and our primary caregivers sealed in our personal history cannot be altered.

Consider this scenario: An individual who has acquired Mandarin natively in early childhood as a MOTHER TONGUE, grows up and migrated overseas to another country without a Mandarin-speaking environment. While language attrition might have set in and the individual is not able to use his/her MOTHER TONGUE as a L1, we would not suggest that this individual has no MOTHER TONGUE or that the MOTHER TONGUE is now a language used in the host country. By definition, his/her MOTHER TONGUE remains as Mandarin, possibly till death.

Such an immutable aspect of MOTHER TONGUE is not extended to the identification of a HERITAGE LANGUAGE. HERITAGE LANGUAGE for an individual is identified if it happens so that his/her MOTHER TONGUE becomes a language that is minoritised and is thus not the dominant language. Such changes can be introduced by migration or societal language shift(s).

The scenario of the speaker with Mandarin as a MOTHER TONGUE is the classic example of how the same language ‘Mandarin’ is not a HERITAGE LANGUAGE in his/her country of origin (e.g. China) but becomes one when he/she migrates to a new country where the dominant language is not Mandarin (e.g. UK, USA). Should this individual return to the country of origin, ‘Mandarin’ is again not regarded as a HERITAGE LANGUAGE within that context.

How do societal language shift(s) result in a change in identification? For the sake of not offending anyone, let me put a hypothetical scenario for reference: Let’s say a person who speaks language A in a country/region where A is one of the majority languages. However, over time, language A loses its prestige and power as a majority language for a variety of reasons. When that happens, the system may then recognise it as a HERITAGE LANGUAGE by definition.

For both scenarios, we have to recognise that the MOTHER TONGUE of the individual remains constant regardless of whether it has been identified to be a HERITAGE LANGUAGE within a given sociopolitical context. What this section highlights is that the definition of a HERITAGE LANGUAGE is dependent on the societal conditions of a particular language for an individual which can change over space and time, while the identification of the MOTHER TONGUE at individual level is somewhat constrained within the linguistic experience of early childhood.

5. Labels in education: is there any difference in mother tongue education vs heritage language education? What about mother tongue learners vs heritage language learners?

What language are we learning in the classroom
Photo from Envato Elements / A teacher and a group of learners in a language classroom – mother tongue or heritage language?

When we talk about labels in education, we are shifting the discussion to a societal and policy level. It may thus appear that the individual slant for MOTHER TONGUE may not surface as much. Indeed, when discourses surrounding MOTHER TONGUE education generally relates to languages which are marginalised within a given system – we hardly frame English education in the USA or UK as MOTHER TONGUE education but may frame any language other than English as such.

In this sense, the essence of what MOTHER TONGUE education implies about the ‘MOTHER TONGUE’ in question is that it is akin to a HERITAGE LANGUAGE – the identified language is subject to competing forces from majority language(s). The languages classified under HERITAGE LANGUAGE education, as mentioned, are usually socio-politically under-privileged languages that require deliberate efforts for maintenance. In this sense, when MOTHER TONGUE education and HERITAGE LANGUAGE education are used as labels within systems, they largely hint at the principles of maintenance, revitalisation and upholding of linguistic rights related to those languages.

Notwithstanding such, there are still slight distinctions between the two as intricately implied. When MOTHER TONGUE education is used, it seeks to refer to formal instruction and learning of a language that is spoken by individuals from birth or early childhood. It emphasises the development of language skills, literacy, and cultural identity in a language that individuals may hold dear because it is part of their earlier linguistic experience and could have been the medium of knowledge acquisition thus far. Between MOTHER TONGUE learners and HERITAGE LANGUAGE learners, MOTHER TONGUE learners are more widely assumed to require scaffolding support through their MOTHER TONGUE, at least in the beginning stages, to access education effectively.

On the other hand, HERITAGE LANGUAGE education focuses on the teaching and learning of a language that is associated with an individual’s cultural heritage but may or may not be their MOTHER TONGUE. It is often targeted towards individuals who have a connection to a specific cultural or ethnic group and aims to develop their proficiency in that language. Depending on scenarios, there are HERITAGE LANGUAGE learners who might be experiencing the language for the first time in formal schooling. We cannot make the assumption that is largely more prevalent for MOTHER TONGUE learners – HERITAGE LANGUAGE learners may not really be “needing” the language per se to access education.

Irrespective of this slight difference, both MOTHER TONGUE education and HERITAGE LANGUAGE education play crucial roles in preserving and promoting linguistic and cultural diversity. They provide opportunities for individuals to connect with their cultural heritage, develop language skills, and maintain a sense of identity.

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Conclusion: Navigating the space between a native language vs a second language

And so, we have finally reached the end of this current journey. Between MOTHER TONGUE and HERITAGE LANGUAGE, we have established instances where both concepts can overlap although I have tried my best to tease out the subtle differences (or perhaps they were not so subtle after all) between them. Consider these differences, which term would be better as the formal nomenclature within a system? I guess that would go into the premise of the shared discourse between politicians, policymakers and the stakeholders within that system. 

To put in some final words, the discussion on MOTHER TONGUE has been rather extensive, considering that this is the second instalment where we engage the term. On the other hand, the discussion on HERITAGE LANGUAGE warrants more – not within this Miniseries per se – as this population occupies such a diverse spectrum, ranging from native to second language proficiency, with some even perceiving it as a foreign language. We could do better in identifying the unique characteristics of heritage speakers and various evidence-based teaching approaches in engaging them. Till then!

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