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First, let's take a look at the meaning of first language by Wikipedia:

A first language, native language or mother tongue (also known as father tongue, arterial language or L1) is a language that a person has been exposed to from birth or within the critical period. In some countries, the term native language or mother tongue refers to the language of one's ethnic group rather than one's first language.

Children brought up speaking more than one language can have more than one native language, and be bilingual or multilingual. By contrast, a second language is any language that one speaks other than one's first language.

I was born in Indonesia, a country with more than 700 living languages are spoken, and I'm fluent in Bahasa (Indonesian lingua franca) since I've been exposed to it from birth. And I've always been using it when I was a child, at school, or even when watching TV.

But since my father is a Javanese and my mother is a Malay, that also makes me exposed to those two languages (Javanese and Malay) from birth. Although I can't have any fluent conversation in those languages, and even lacking of the writing skills, I can understand most of the words from those two languages.

The thing is, all of those languages (Javanese, Malay, Bahasa) are considered to be in the same language group (Malayo-Polynesian languages). So it makes senses why I can understand them.

And for the case of English, I started learning it since I was six years old. I'm not that fluent in it, but I can have some fluent conversations with using it.

Now, based on Wikipedia, Javanese, Malay, and Bahasa should be considered as my first language because I've been exposed to them from birth. And English should be considered as a second language because "a second language is any language that one speaks other than one's first language".

Is that right? Because it seems odd to me that a person has several first languages. And I'm not that fluent in the case of Javanese and Malay.

For a comparison (just my opinion):

  1. Bahasa to Malay is like American English to British English
  2. Bahasa to Javanese is like English to German
  • Could you please add at what age you started learning Bahasa, Malay and Javanese? Especially for Bahasa, this is unclear. – IkWeetHetOokNiet Sep 5 '17 at 17:13
  • Please also add the language used in kindergarten (if relevant), the language of instruction at school, what languages you preferred as a child when watching TV or listening to the radio (if relevant), etc. – IkWeetHetOokNiet Sep 5 '17 at 17:42
  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because in my opinion, I don't see how this relates to language learning. – fi12 Sep 6 '17 at 0:19
  • @fi12 Then, where should I ask this question? Linguistics? – Ivan Di Sep 6 '17 at 0:21
  • @IvanDi It would be off-topic on Linguistics too. Your question may be on-topic though, so let's wait to see what the community thinks. – fi12 Sep 6 '17 at 0:22
3

This is true.

From Catija's answer and mainly her source in English Language Learners, we get a lot of information and thus, answers. She mentions first that one can have several first languages, or "mother tongues":

Sometimes the term mother tongue or mother language is used for the language that a person learned as a child at home (usually from their parents). Children growing up in bilingual homes can, according to this definition, have more than one mother tongue or native language.

You learned from birth Javanese and Malay, so those are your first languages. I will not assume anything about Bahasa though since there is a lack of information on when you learned that language. So for now, let's assume that it is true. With the above definition, English would indeed be your second language.

So, you are completely correct if Bahasa is indeed a mother tongue (first language).


Now though you seem to be more literate in English than in Javanese and Malay as you are able to speak fluently in English but not in the other two languages. Another Wikipedia quote:

It is quite possible that the first language learned is no longer a speaker's dominant language.

First means first so of course, fluency is not a factor though you may see that some assume that you are most fluent in your first languages. Note that people assume and expect that though that is not always the case.

Catija also says in the beginning of her answer:

Your mother tongue, also known as first language or native language, is the language you grow up speaking at home. Most people have one native language and may acquire second languages at various levels of fluency.

A first language (also native language, mother tongue, arterial language, or L1) is the language or are the languages a person has learned from birth or within the critical period, or that a person speaks the best and so is often the basis for sociolinguistic identity[citation needed]. In some countries, the terms native language or mother tongue refer to the language of one's ethnic group rather than one's first language. Children brought up speaking more than one language can have more than one native language, and be bilingual.

By contrast, a second language is any language that one speaks other than one's first language.

The bold is mine for emphasis.


So, with all this information, what can we deduct? That your first languages are Javanese and Malay (and maybe Bahasa) because of the first and second bold quotes:

  • A first language (also native language, mother tongue, arterial language, or L1) is the language or are the languages a person has learned from birth...

  • Children brought up speaking more than one language can have more than one native language, and be bilingual.

And English as your second language as seen by the comparison in the last bold quote:

  • By contrast, a second language is any language that one speaks other than one's first language.
1

Strictly speaking, there can be only one "first language". Even in the case of simultaneous bilingualism, i.e. the acquisition of two languages from birth, there is typically a dominant language and a less dominant language.

Since you indicate that you have been exposed to Bahasa from birth, that you are fluent in Bahasa but not in Javanese and Malay (the two other languages you've been exposed to from birth), is is clear that Bahasa is your first language, and that Javanese and Malay come second and third.

I would consider Javanese and Malay only as native languages if you were consistently spoken to in these languages at home and not merely "exposed" to them. For example, if your father used Javanese consistently and your mother used Malay consistently, instead of only occasionally; it is not clear whether that was the case. Since mere "exposure" is a vague term (i.e. how much exposure?) that does not necessarily imply consistent use of a language, I disagree with Anthony Pham's statement that Javanese and Malay are also your first languages. (I was "exposed" a bit to French as a child at home, but never learnt it until I went to school.)

I would consider English as your fourth language. The term "second language" is only relevant in the sense that research in second language acquisition (SLA) does not make a distinction between successive non-native languages. In other words, research into the acquisition of a second, third, fourth, fifth languages (assuming these are all non-native languages) all fits into the category "second language acquisition research".

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