mother tongue: what's in a name? a report


From the many valuable topics raised by the audience during our first live session on multilingualism in the Kaaistudio's (8.2.22), we chose the topic of "mother tongue" — a concept that was discussed and questioned remarkably much in February — for the second session on May 3rd.

In a city like Brussels, this is hardly surprising. More and more people who grow up and live in a multilingual context find it increasingly difficult to identify with only one language or even to call one language their mother tongue. The language of the home is not necessarily the language that they prefer to use later on in life, and sometimes at home several languages were spoken at the same time. The school language is not always the first language, and even languages that you learn later on can make you feel that they are really living in you and stop being “foreign”.

In the artistic interventions and group discussions, we searched together for new ways and words to discuss and deal with this multilingual reality in a creative and meaningful way.

Yasemin Yildiz's book, Beyond the Mother Tongue: The Postmonolingual Condition (2012), presented by writer and researcher Sofie Verraest, confirmed the experience of many and also provided an interesting theoretical framework for it. Yildiz argues that the traditional, monolingual vision of mother tongue — the one language of childhood, the one you master best, the one with which you are most emotionally and cognitively connected and through which your personal, national and cultural identity is built — is by no means equally useful to everyone. Yildiz defines this “monolingual paradigm” as “a linguistic family romance that constructs a narrative of true origin and ensuing identity. The concept of the mother tongue and its rich connotations, in other words, offers a strong model of the exclusive link between language and identity”.

The “multilingual paradigm”, on the other hand, which for more and more people is a daily reality and even a “second nature”, shows that “languages do indeed relate to identities, but not in any predetermined, predictable way”. For Yildiz, (mother) language is not a static and solid entity but rather “an aggregate of differential elements, all of which are subject to historical and social configuration”. Such an aggregate then “combines within it a number of ways of relating to language, be it familial inheritance, social embeddedness, emotional attachment, personal identification, or linguistic competence. Contrary to the monolingual paradigm, it is possible for all these different dimensions to be distributed across multiple languages.”

The Dutch poet Nisrine Mbarki, who shared the poem “tong” (“tongue”) from her debut collection Oeverloos (published by Pluim, 2022) and discussed it with the audience, is clearly someone for whom the “monolingual paradigm” is not valid. For her, it would be unnatural to think and write in a purely monolingual way; as a human being and as a writer, she claims the “right to multilingualism”. In “tongue”, for example, she uses four languages interchangeably (Dutch, French, Arabic and Tamazight). Each of these languages are her mother tongues in a certain way and continue to live in her, as languages that can each express something different and have other connotations.

Moreover, Nisrine asks critical questions about the link between “mother tongue” and “motherhood”, questions that were also raised by the audience. Can't one have several mother figures and mother tongues? No doubt other figures can “mother” too.

It's also interesting to note that Nisrine deliberately leaves the other languages (other than Dutch) untranslated in her poem. This way the readers are invited to go and look for themselves and to experience what it's like not to understand everything right away — which is usually a utopia anyway. “Actually, reading is always a form of translating,” says Nisrine.

Effi & Amir showed us an excerpt from their recent film Beyond the Throat (BE, 2021). In it, a young Tibetan man tells about his quite unpleasant experience with the language test he was subjected to in order to obtain a Swiss residence permit. The interviewer who took the language test wanted to check whether he really came from the region he mentioned. She found his language skills and accent suspicious and put pressure on him to confess to one clear linguistic identity. The young man, honest as he was, had to experience how his personal, historically grown (mother) language could be used against him as a weapon for political-identitarian reasons.

This testimony shows how the mother tongue does not always offer safety, but can also be used to exclude, limit and fix someone. A person’s own “language trail” (parcours linguistique) is often multiple and multilingualism is certainly not typically “Western” or 'European”, nor a matter of socially and economically privileged people.

Finally, here is a broad selection of the alternative names and ways of thinking that were proposed in the course of the evening:

  • Instead of “linguistic identity”, one could also speak of language fluidity, just as we speak of “gender fluidity”.
  • Not the one mother tongue but the languages that live in you and that you carry within you.
  • Not the one mother tongue but the language that suits you best in a given situation, just as you do not dress the same way every day.
  • We may distinguish between someone's family language, professional language, friendship language, love language, artistic language, etc. Terms that can be more meaningful than “mother tongue”.
  • Your language use and knowledge of languages are dynamic: they are not fixed but form a personal “language trail” (parcours linguistique). So you can look at your mother tongue as something which is constantly evolving, without being predetermined.
  • The mother tongue may also be plural: it may be your personal mix of languages, the combination of the languages you use in different contexts. This is perhaps the most realistic and honest way of identifying with languages.
  • A person's multilingualism is often linked to various facets of their personality. A Slovak proverb was quoted: “You are as many people as the languages you know.”
  • The mother tongue may literally be the language of the mother, but mothering (and the passing on of languages) is also done by other people and institutions.
  • For many people, the language of childhood is not the language of the present.
  • The term “heritage language”, which comes from American decolonisation theory, is not a synonym for mother tongue or first language. The term refers to the language of an ancestral culture or ethnicity, but is by no means always someone’s preferred language.
  • Fear of losing your mother tongue is not necessarily justified, because you do not necessarily have to choose one main language and a language is never lost completely. You may “own” several languages and continue to use your mother tongue alongside others.
  • Who you are today, how you think and speak today, what you write and create today, is not (entirely) dependent on the one language that was given to you long ago.
  • It is in many cases a privilege to always be able to continue to live and work in your mother tongue. It is a luxury that many migrants and newcomers, for example, do not have.
  • Perfect multilingualism may be utopian, but so is a perfect monolingual past. Your ancestors probably spoke differently from you, too...
  • English is the biggest and most powerful lingua franca of our time, but such “working languages” have always existed, are often necessary, and do not in themselves have to pose a threat to multilingualism and the survival of other languages.

Next session on Tuesday 11 October 2022 in the Kaaistudio's!