mother tongue

WoaWomen Urra
3 min readOct 24, 2023


Why do we call the first language we learn as babies our mother tongue? Our first language, native language, native tongue, or mother tongue is the first language or dialect that a person has been exposed to from birth or within the critical period — that ideal time window in our brain development.

There is a spirit or an originating genius belonging to each word.” ~ Louise Erdrich.

clouds over Negros Island

There is power in words — the older these words, the more energy they contain. No wonder we are enriched by our ancestral tongue — the mother’s milk of our native language.

What happens then when we are uprooted, forbidden, or forget our mother tongue? It is understandable that the outcome complicates our communication. Misconceptions lost in translation can compound misunderstandings.

When we grow up speaking another language, surrounded by others speaking what we were not born and raised on — what then?

difficult conversations we need to have

A hundred years ago most colonized people spoke their native tongue but governing agents and religious institutions punished and humiliated children who spoke native languages.

The program worked very well and there are now almost no fluent speakers under the age of thirty. Speakers that survive the purge value their language partly because it has been physically beaten out of so many people.

Fluent speakers have had to fight for the language with their own flesh, have endured ridicule, have resisted shame, and stubbornly pledged themselves to keep on talking the talk.

Depiction of a Visayan couple, circa 1590
(Boxer Codex, The Lilly Library Digital Collections)

Our relationship is quite the opposite. How do you go back to a language you never had? Why should a writer who loves her first language find it necessary and essential to complicate her life with another?

Our reasons are simple and direct — whether personal or impersonal. Through the years we find our way back to the God of our heart only in our mother language. Somehow our ancestral use of the mother tongue penetrated — it is a sound that brings us comfort.

Our little island dialect is Hiligaynon — an Austronesian regional language spoken in the Philippines. It is a Hispanized contraction of the phrase manog-ilig sang kawayan (bamboo floaters) — people whose occupation was to float bamboo poles downriver for building materials.

Mount Kanla-on, Negros Island

According to a creation myth, the original name of Negros was Bugras or Buglas, meaning “a slice” or “to cut off” was borne of an angry god who cut it off from the mother island of Panay. The cultural history of the island is woven out of mythology, archaeology, and documented history.

One of the myriad surviving languages that evolved to the present in our multi-colonized nation. The intelligence of this language is formed by the philosophy bound up to this land — islands, coves, streams, forests, volcanoes — to the animals and their particular behavior — to the nuances in the placement of each pebble.

As a migrant writer it is essential to understanding our human relationship to plumb whatever depths possible from the foundation of our favorite language — our mother tongue.

Originally published at