Mother and language: a fascinating bond

Have you ever wondered why our first language is called our ‘mother tongue?’

It could have been called our ‘community tongue’ or ‘family tongue’ but in nearly every known language it is called the mother tongue.

There’s an interesting link between the language we speak with our mothers from the start of our lives and the building of our relationship through this specific language. Children oftentimes see it as an invisible comfort blanket that if it is taken away can cause insecurity and confusion.

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Psycholinguist Annick de Houwer has written about this phenomenon in her book, Bilingual First Language Acquisition, where her bilingual daughter Susan, with whom she nurtures a relationship in Dutch, found herself mistakenly asking her a question in English after a telephone conversation in English. The child was three and a half years old at the time and De Houwer had always spoke Dutch with her. Susan started to cry and said, in Dutch: “Nee mama, nee! Niet Engels mama!” (No mummy, no! No English, mummy!).

It’s almost as if children feel the need to protect their language with their mothers, and in some cases any other significant people in their lives with whom they’ve developed a relationship through a specific language.

I’ve noticed myself that my son is very jealous of his language bond with me. I recently wrote about not being able to respect the OPOL policy all the time due to external situations where I don’t want to seem rude in company of others speaking a language to my children that people don’t understand. I tend to switch now in these occasions. My son, however, doesn’t like speaking in Italian to me. He values our special ‘English bond’ that we share. He doesn’t care that some things are expressed better in Italian; with me he wants the English version.

Scientists state that respecting the bond helps children to differentiate between languages. It’s their natural way of protecting their own progress in a particular language. It’s normal that children can refuse a language that isn’t normally spoken by their caregiver, even if they are able to speak it. As children get older, these person-language bonds evolve into an ‘agreed-upon’ language bond with people they know well and the grip tends to ease up. Sometimes, however, if switching has never been practised between the two, violation of the agreement can cause embarrassment.

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