On the 21st day of next month world celebrates “Mother Language Day“. In the light of the intensive development of multilingualism around the country, the significance of the first language (L1) is special.
A few days ago during the classes, one professor willing to identify language backgrounds of our cohort asked students to specify their first language. The question that seemed to be obvious and easy to answer in the beginning became disputable at the end of an interrogation. Surprisingly, the certain number of students were unable to determine their actual mother tongue or pointed out their first language from the perspective of their ethnicities. The point was that, even in case of extremely rare use of Kazakh language during their lifetime students were convinced that a native language should be identified on the basis of their national identity, which literally contradicted the ordinary views on definition of a mother tongue and consequently left our professor perplexed on this matter at the end of classes.
To clarify, let’s revisit the definition of “the first language”; for instance, in Collins and Cambridge dictionaries it is referred to as a native language that has been learned first from a birth before studying a new language. Notably, there is no reference to a connection of national origin of an individual with his or her first exposed language. Then what makes our students call a language, in this case, Kazakh, which was hardly ever used and spoken in their families and during school and university life as their first language or mother tongue? The answer may be in the consideration of the value that Kazakhs attach to a meaning of the word “mother tongue” in Kazakh (“ana tili”), which is treated as a reflection of Kazakh nation’s identity, culture and historical heritage. Plenty of Kazakh prominent poets realized the significance of Kazakh language in nation’s identity and dedicated poems to the mother tongue full of patriotic love and pride. The history of the beginning of Kazakhstan’s formation as a republic, to my mind, is another important factor that affected the Kazakhstani people perception of the mother tongue. Specifically, in the 20s due to korenizatsiya (indigenization) policy, each of fifteen Soviet republics was designated as an autonomous republic with its titular language (Pavlenko, 2008). Hence, in spite of Russian being a lingua franca in Kazakh republic and the majority of the Russian-speaking population, the attainment of Kazakh language a titular status led to shaping a view of Kazakh language as part of gaining a national identity. Since then, word “mother tongue” in Kazakhstan implies a meaning of the language of own ethnicity and national origin. Years-long Kazakh language revival policy only reinforced acquired that conception. Here is an article of an Australian blogger Mabel Kwong, who shares a similar opinion on the concept of the mother tongue, but also she indicates its difference between “first language” from a perspective of an emergent bilingual.
For me “mother tongue” is a language in which my ideas and thoughts are formulated and through which I express my emotions explicitly. Thus, the idea of seeing a mother tongue as a part of nationality is obviously not something that I could agree with. What are your opinions on Kazakhs’ view on “mother tongue” conception?
Pavlenko, A. (2008). Multilingualism in Post-Soviet Countries: Language Revival, Language Removal, and Sociolinguistic Theory. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 11(3–4), 275–314. https://doi.org/10.1080/13670050802271517