What is a mother tongue?

5 min readDec 16, 2023

Humans form their identity based on a variety of things. The most important identity one has is around nation. Using national identities such as ‘I am an Indian’ and ‘I am a German’ are commonly expressed and accepted identities. Another powerful identity is around religion. In modern times, religious identities have successfully trumped even national identities and is emerging as a strong identity. Some people use racial identities (I am Black, I am Asian) to identify themselves and some use their sexual inclinations to identify themselves (I am Gay, I am Straight etc.).

Language is also a very powerful identity. In my culture in Tamil Nadu in South India, our language Tamil is given god status and it is worshipped. It is very common for parents to name their kids as Tamilselvan, Tamilarasan, Tamilini, TamilSelvi etc. Tamil being the oldest spoken language in the world, there is an enormous pride attached to this identity in our culture.

Mother Tamil idol in front of Thamukkam Grounds near American College, Madurai

Even though nobody takes any effort to educate about the history and greatness of Tamil to their kids, the pride somehow keeps increasing. In addition, the Tamil spoken in India is highly polluted where almost 60–70% of the word usage today are from North Indian languages. Srilankans somehow preserve the purest form of Tamil and take a lot of effort to speak the pure form without mixing with English.

Tamil Nadu has a long history of language based politics especially by DMK to protest against the enforcement of Hindi by central governments. In recent years, a party led by a former cinema director uses ‘mother tongue’ as a means to find fault lines and play divisive politics. According to them, anybody whose mother tongue is not Tamil should not be allowed to rule Tamil Nadu even if they lived for generations there and surprisingly, quite a few of my friends have subscribed to this idea.

In my language Tamil, mother tongue is referred to as ‘Thaai Mozhi’ (mother’s language). According to Cambridge dictionary, mother tongue is the first language that you learn when you are a baby, rather than a language learned at school or as an adult.

Is mother tongue that first language a child learns before formal education? Or is it the language spoken by the mother and her ancestors?

After spending 11 years in Europe, I understand the importance they give to their mother tongue. I live in Switzerland which is one third the size of Tamilnadu and the country has four official languages. In Geneva where I live, everything is in French. In Zurich, everything is in German. In Lugano, it is Italian and in the mountains, it is Romansch. Everything from education to official communication changes dramatically in a span of 2–3 hours. All the kids are taught French and German in this part of Switzerland.

My French teacher helped me to understand the power of learning in one’s own language. French is the first language that I learned properly. I don’t know anything in Tamil. English was taught to me by teachers who studied in Tamil medium and who didn’t have a good command as well as understanding of the language. But my French teacher was an expert in his language and through him, I realized that every other subject from maths, science, history, geography and even logic originates from the language. It is for this reason, one needs to understand language deeply.

Think of the machine languages that programmers use such as C++, Java, Oracle etc. A good programmer understands a language deeply and writes codes that are simple, effective and scalable in order to make either an ATM to engage with the end user seamlessly or solve the complex operations research problem involved in baggage coding while traveling by planes, to name a few.

But still it was not convincing for me on why somebody has to be taught in mother tongue. As long as someone is trained in a language properly, it really doesn’t matter in my opinion. The only advantage a mother tongue brings is the extra contextual knowledge that comes from living and dealing with the language in a region where it originated. But even that information is scarce in our generation as none of the people in my age has any understanding of my language or its history or its grammar or its ancient literature. Their pride sadly comes from ignorance.

I used to think that mother tongue is the language spoken by the mother which she might have picked from her family and ancestors. I was ignorant. Even if we leave aside all these definitions and start using common sense, we know that the child doesn’t speak for almost 1.5 years. Does that mean that the child doesn’t communicate with the mother or does it mean that the mother doesn’t speak to her child?

My wife used to tell me that our daughter was hungry even when they both were not together because the milk starts oozing the moment the baby feels hungry. It is not only for my wife but for all mothers. They operate with ‘intention’.

In every species, mother is the highest being. With the rise of content in Youtube, we are able to see the power of mothers cutting across species. I am sure many of you watched a duck doing everything possible to push some security officers in US to retrieve her ducklings from a drainage hole. Most recently, there was a video that was widely circulated where a deer throws herself at a crocodile to protect her fawn and a dog mother protecting her pup when the owner tries to punish the pup for mis-behaviour.

The first language that every mother communicates with her child is the language of love. This love language manifests as caring, kindness, compassion and protection. The mother protects the child, safeguards the child, cares for her child and showers the child with unconditional love. This language cannot be spoken and cannot be heard. It can only be felt and experienced.

Every human being irrespective of nation, religion, caste, creed, culture and language experience this language. It is this language that unites human beings and every being. As we grow up, we start learning various languages and slowly start forgetting this mother tongue or mother’s language. As a result, we slowly start to forget how to emote and how to feel because the language of the brain takes precedence in our lives.

We enter into a world of duality that constantly judges everything as good and bad, right and wrong, rich and poor etc. The ability to judge and discern is a form of intelligence. However, we use only this language and never step back to go back to that language we experienced as a child. It is only in transcendent and temporary moments we experience this language.

A mother’s language or mother tongue is ‘LOVE’. Let’s understand this language deeply and let’s start using it in our lives. This language only knows how to unite and not divide people. It accepts and dilutes every form of hate. It protects, safeguards and ensures kindness. It fosters compassion.

Let us express and feel the mother tongue because this is the language the world needs desparately from all of us.




Father, Entrepreneur & Writer; Edison award winning innovation; Daytime Emmy nominated animation; Author of two books; WEF Davos, Cannes Lions, TEDx