Statistics Canada
Symbol of the Government of Canada

Mother tongue of person

Status

Mother tongue of person was approved as a departmental standard on April 20, 2009.

Definition

Mother tongue refers to the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood by the person at the time the data was collected. If the person no longer understands the first language learned, the mother tongue is the second language learned. For a person who learned two languages at the same time in early childhood, the mother tongue is the language this person spoke most often at home before starting school. The person has two mother tongues only if the two languages were used equally often and are still understood by the person. For a child who has not yet learned to speak, the mother tongue is the language spoken most often to this child at home. The child has two mother tongues only if both languages are spoken equally often so that the child learns both languages at the same time.

Person refers to an individual and is the unit of analysis for most social statistics programmes.

Usage

Mother tongue of person may be analyzed using the Classification of language(s) of person. Here, if the person has two mother tongues, he or she is classified using the appropriate “Multiple responses” category. The class, “none”, is not used.

Mother tongue of person may also be analyzed by looking at each response individually. Here, the Classification of language, total responses is used. This approach is used to look at all persons who reported having a specific language as their mother tongue or as one of their mother tongues, regardless of whether or not they also reported another mother tongue.

In this second approach, counts are based on response occurrences, that is, each response provided to a question about the person’s mother tongue. A person can have more than one response occurrence, depending on the number of mother tongues he or she reported. The counts for the specific languages cannot be meaningfully combined because individuals can be included in the count for more than one language. Hence, this total could be greater than the total population.

Relation to previous standard

This is a revision of the previous standard Mother tongue. The definition of mother tongue remains the same but there is a fuller discussion of the question of persons having two mother tongues. The discussion of the alternative approaches to analysis has been added. Previously, there was no standard collapsed classification, users being advised instead to use English and French and the 10 to 15 languages reported with the highest incidence for the given geographic area.

Conformity to relevant internationally recognized standards

A similar variable is suggested in the recommendations for censuses contained in the United Nations’ Principles and Recommendations for Population and Housing Censuses, Revision 2, 2008; however, the definitions differ. The UN defines mother tongue as “the language usually spoken in the individual’s home in his or her early childhood”. This standard adds the additional criterion that the person still understand the language. The standard also recognizes the possibility of a person having more than one mother tongue, a matter not discussed in the UN recommendations.

Classification(s)