At the beginning of the month of February 2022, my ancestors revealed to me the topic ‘(Un)tying the father tongue’. I had read that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) celebrated International Mother Language Day. The mother language is also known as the ‘mother tongue’. This ancestral revelation was reinforced later in the month when a conversation around the ‘mother tongue’ arose in my work WhatsApp group. This reminded me that memory and what we (re)member is triggered by our experiences. It is in this context that I write this short piece.
To understand the extent to which the term ‘mother tongue’ is used across scholarly disciplines, this paper maps out the discipline distributions by utilising the bibliometric software, i.e. VOSViewer (Van Eck & Waltman 2022; Aria & Cuccurullo 2017). The discipline distribution is shown below reflecting on the disciplines where the term features the most.
Documents for analysis were extracted from Clarivate Analytics (Web of Science) using the search term “mother tongue”. The search returned more than 12 000 documents and the percentage distribution within the disciplines is shown below. The distribution shows small percentages in disciplines where its ‘functional’ role is less acknowledged, possibly revealing a limited attention to the critique of the concept ‘mother tongue’ and its epistemological capital.
Only the first one thousand documents out of the more that 12000 documents were downloaded as a CSV (comma-separated-values) file for analysis. The analysis sought to focus on scholarly disciplines, and the keywords co-concurrence. From the maps presented, it is clear that the term ‘mother tongue’ has been used mostly in studies that focus on developmental psychology, linguistics, education, and languages as shown below.
Broadly, these research papers and their disciplines have been interested in understanding ‘mother tongue’ use in children and learning development and the application of the term has been from a ‘functionalist’ perspective where it is argued that the use of the ‘mother tongue’ enhances children’s learning and development. Using keyword co-concurrence from one thousand research articles, the network map above shows the links between the keyword ‘mother tongue’ and other areas of concern.
There are strong links between the ‘mother tongue’ keyword and speech development, language acquisition, child development, education, teaching, identity, intelligence, inclusivity and comprehension. I argue that broadly, in these disciples ‘mother tongue’ is thought of and constructed within the hetero-patriarchal paradigm where mother, the home and the (re)production and performance of citizenship are seen as central, but also imagined through hetero-patriarchy. Thus, all the one thousand studies wholly (re)produced and performed the gendered term ‘mother tongue’ in its hetero-patriarchal sense where it (re)produces and common-senses social locations, hierarchies and inequalities. While the ‘functional’ roles of the ‘mother tongue’ have to be appreciated, it is useful to also think through the concept beyond this and consider the epistemological underpinnings that are often overlooked.
Linguistic diversity, and the politics of naming
The prevailing disappearance of many languages is a result of epistemic injustices, ‘colonial’ and ‘imperial’ cultures and language policies that structurally and systematically put cultures and languages into hierarchies. This disappearance of languages threatens linguistic diversity. Language is a carrier of culture and the extinction of a language takes with it people’s cultural and intellectual heritage. UNESCO recognises linguistic diversity and encourages member states to recognise the day in as many languages as possible, as a reminder that linguistic diversity and multilingualism are essential for sustainable development. This is because each and every language carries a people’s culture where knowledges and (in)tangible wealth can be tapped from and passed on to others.
While the recognition of linguistic diversity is very welcome, as is seeing a child’s immediate language(s) as vital and pragmatic to their development, I find the knowledge base of the concept of ‘mother language/mother tongue’ problematic. I argue that the concept ‘mother language/mother tongue’ is a performance of everyday gendered, hetero-patriarchal and grotesque nationalist narratives. Mothers are assumed to be, and actually naturalised as the immediate persons we interact with from birth and in our fragile state, locating them in care-giving and the grooming of their off-spring. Mawere (2019, 2020) reflects on the domestication of (m)otherhood and how it is associated with, and performed through feeding, care, and (re)producing citizens. This normalisation of the role of a mother figure common-senses and normalises women as carers, and is a way of justifying their exclusions from spaces that are dominated by men.
In many ways, a (re)thinking of the (m)other tongue is important to make us understand some forms of epistemic injustices and visibilise the hidden phallic, masculine tongue (which is actually valorised, distant, godly and very powerful) that actually triggers and positions the (m)other tongue. Considering the ambivalence of the ‘mother tongue’ where mostly, lineage is traced in a patrilineal manner, I see the celebration of the ‘mother tongue’ as intertwined with a politics of naming that glorifies the location of women in the domestic space. Particular images of women that are continuously (re)produced in dominant narratives leads to the domestication of women (Gaidzanwa 1992, 1885). Amidst this drawing of boundaries, when women tend to cross boundaries, they are vilified (Mawere 2019).
While the ‘mother tongue’ is the first language or dialect that a person is exposed to from birth, it is vital to recognise the symbolic and performative aspects that are associated with it. It is important to note that although in some instances, a child might be raised by relatives or other siblings, adopted, taken into orphanages or raised by a man, in many societies, there is often a mother figure that the child is associated with. This might be at a physical level or symbolic level or both, but the mother figure is often imagined within a hetero-patriarchal domestic order. ‘Mother tongue’ expresses space/location, and gendered identities that have a bearing on heritage, memory and ones’ identity in the body of the nation. The idea to associate the first language(s) with the mother is informed by dominant and hetero-patriarchal narratives that locate motherhood and women within the space of care, (re)production, and home.
The home and mother have ambivalent identities where they are both marginal and symbolic spaces (they are devalued, fetishized, and yet valorised at the same time) and are positioned in the politics of (re)production and (re)generation in ways that call for their protection in order to allow continuity (Mawere, Evans and Musvipa 2020) and that continuity includes existing power hierarchies and gendered and sexual imaginations. Space is highly politicised (Schmidt 1990, 1988) and gender is one of the ways through which spatial arenas are often politicised for inclusions and exclusions (Mawere 2019, O’Neill, Savign and Cann 2016). It is within this ‘pure’ space of home, and the guidance of motherhood, that culture is passed on and ‘citizenship’ is nurtured. The mother is associated with the immediate world and source of life for the child in the same way that nature is said to take care of human beings. The mother is seen as the source of life for humanity, hence notions such as mother-nature provoke imagined similarities between women and nature. The ‘mother’ language, which is seen as immediate and ‘natural’ to the child, is given the same role of care and building citizens just as is given to women in most narratives of the nation that are hetero-patriarchal. The role of care, and nurturing is naturalised as the role of a present mother and the role of a woman, glorifying and common-sensing the location of women within the nation and obviously making their location beyond the home and beyond mothering undesirable.
In addition, ‘mother tongue’ expresses imaginations of selfhood, the home and the nation, and has a way of normalising the gendering of the nation and the ways in which it has to be ‘protected’, as well as the location of (m)others within the nation. Thus, I present a complex and ambivalent positioning of (m)other which is constructed around superficial, unique and glorified attributes of motherhood, as well as (m)other as an essential hetero-patriarchal construction of exclusion, surveillance, and policing (Mawere 2021; Derrida 1998). The mother language is feminised and rendered a ‘victim’ of exploitation, pollution and precarity, hence the need for its ‘protection.’ It is unfortunate that there is always some form of precarity that is associated with feminised bodies, and the first language(s) has to be ‘mothered’ in a way that alludes to the naturalised vulnerabilities of other feminised bodies like the nation, the earth, the soil, land and nature.
Imaginations of the ‘mother’ language therefore, perform existing hetero-patriarchal narratives of the possible danger facing feminised subjects, hence the need for their surveillance, control and protection. This is especially so because hetero-patriarchy always sells itself as protective of womanhood. Language is personified through being ‘mothered’, hence is configured through the iconography of familial and domestic spaces (Mawere 2019, 2016, McClintock 1993, Yuval-Davis 1997). I argue that learning and thinking through the ‘mother tongue’ is an expression of learning and thinking within the nation as it is imagined by and through hetero-patriarchy.
In many ways, the idea of the ‘mother tongue’ is a celebration of heteronormativity and ‘normalised families’ with present mother figures, and is very exclusionary to the presence of diverging forms of families and identities. Epistemic injustice is very central to the everyday exclusions and violence of those that are left outside of what is normalised. In celebrating this mother language day, it is important to reflect on situations like; what if one is raised by a single man, what if one is raised by two men who are in a relationship, what if one is raised by people who speak different languages and you acquire the languages simultaneously and equally? These questions were raised by a colleague in our work Whatsapp group and they should make one (re)think the concept of ‘mother tongue’ and its hetero-normativities that create stigma and exclusions.
The ‘mother tongue’ concept assumes that people have mothers, that they acquire language(s) from their mothers and this ignores the diverse families that exist, and where mothers might be absent. However, the concept, if taken from a symbolic level, expresses the identity and gendered roles of mothers in the hetero-patriarchal world, which has been common-sensed and continue to be celebrated and performed as International Mother Language Day is celebrated. From this angle, celebrating the mother language becomes one of the insidious ways of celebrating imagined citizenship and becoming part of the national body, in a hetero-patriarchal sense.
Although UNESCO highlights the importance of linguistic diversity and multilingualism, and acknowledges that languages are oppressed and extinguished, what is acted out by the term ‘mother tongue’ is also ambivalent in its intentions. With the ways in which ‘mother’ is thought within hetero-patriarchy and associated with ‘nature/nurture/land’ and identity, and perhaps in a rejection of ‘hybridity’, everything is boxed in the hetero-patriarchal and ‘purity’ sense. The ‘mother tongue’ is eulogised as an expression of one’s ‘pure’ and normal identity in much the same way as motherhood is expected to (re)produce ‘pure’ and acceptable citizenship. In this sense, mother or motherhood, in many ways, is a metaphor of purity, the ‘unpolluted’ and hetero-patriarchal, and (m)other language too become associated with meanings of purity.
Basically, motherhood is ‘protected’ and controlled by its location in domesticity. So, using this ‘reason’, language (which carries culture) is best passed on by and through motherhood. The glorification gives ‘logic’ to limitations imposed on women and motherhood as the boundaries drawn limit exposure to the external world and therefore to pollutants that can possibly contaminate their ‘pure’ bodies. In my previous works (Mawere 2022, 2021, 2019, 2016), I have focused on how the soil, the land, the earth, nature and women are naturalised in discourses of (m)otherhood, where they are glorified and reified, but at the same time, associated with otherness as they are domesticated, owned, presented as vulnerable and robbed of agentive power. The (m)other language falls into the same trap of hetero-patriarchal instrumentalism and common-sensing that is made part of the everyday.
The ‘mother tongue’ is imagined in femininity to give sense to how it can be adulterated, polluted and in danger. These imaginations continue to buttress, (re)produce, normalise, and common-sense gendered views that locate women in vulnerability and precarity, hence their restrictions to domesticity and their assumed dependence on men.
In (re)thinking the mother tongue, one notices a privileging of the idea that a hetero-patriarchal normative mother figure is inevitable and anything else that falls short of that is ‘polluted’. While this form of a mother is ‘inevitable’ and glorifies women, it is very instrumental to the ‘order’ that puts women on pedestals to buttress prevailing hetero-patriarchal and nationalist knowledge systems and structures. It is important to question the thinking of the first language(s) in terms of motherhood as well as how that thinking (re)produces and performs epistemic injustices and the (re)production and performance of hetero-patriarchal dominations.
In some ways, a (re)thinking of the ‘mother tongue’ enables us to visibilise the ‘silent’ but loud father tongue. The absent presence of the father tongue gives it a godly, unquestioned, domineering, performative and agentic status that pursues patriarchy, heteronormativity and nationalism. Celebrating the (m)other tongue (re)produces gendered binaries and positions men and women, masculinity and femininity as binaries and differently as subjects in the body politics of the nation. The use of (m)other tongue, in this context, is an example of the prevailing epistemic injustice that normalises the gendering of bodies.
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