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I was born in Germany but my mother is from Brazil. Therefore, I speak with her in Portuguese and everyone else in German. The thing is, I moved to Brazil when I was 13-14. I never had much difficulty in school, besides the initial transition. I already knew how to read and write. But with time I perfected the complexity of reading and writing and consider myself more fluent in Portuguese (and English) than German, though I still understand everything in German without communicating with anyone besides small talk with my father. I consider myself fluent in both.

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    What language do you think in, when you are thinking to yourself? Mar 14, 2022 at 12:20
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    @ChrisMelville: some people think to themselves in more than one language. I distinctly remember the first time I realized I was thinking to myself in French, rather than my native language.
    – Krazy Glew
    Mar 15, 2022 at 13:56
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    I read an account of a person living with Inuits and learning their language (Inuktitut IIRC), who realised he had attained mastery when he realised he was thinking in their language instead of his "first" language. I believe "thinking in" is the true measure of fluency, and, yes you can be multi-fluent. I am very curious about kah's answer to @ChrisMelville's question.
    – studog
    Mar 15, 2022 at 14:00
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    @ChrisMelville A lot of people don't think in any language when they're thinking to themselves.
    – user36750
    Mar 15, 2022 at 15:14
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    Consider thinking of them both as "my primary languages" and test if that works for you.
    – Criggie
    Mar 15, 2022 at 21:22

4 Answers 4

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Since "first language" is not a technical concept of linguistics, feel free to say you have two first languages. Although linguists may use the expression, we often feel a bit uncomfortable with it. One of the main reasons why linguists ask about a "first" language is to determine what is a person's dominant language. This is of interest for two (related) reasons. First, we don't want everybody from India to answer "Hindi and English", or everybody from Kenya and Tanzania to answer "Swahili", since we are really looking for a speaker of something more obscure, and 9 times out of 10 people demur on the "local language". Second, we also want to identify people who "actually speak the language", as opposed to those who know a bit of the language that they picked up when visiting grandmother.

Another problem with "first language" is that, I know a couple of people who do not understand a single word of their "first language". Young children easily acquire a language, but they also easily lose languages. The implication that order of acquisition is important is wrong, and talking about languages as being "first" or "second" is not useful unless for some reason you actually want to classify speakers based on pre-natal and post-partem phonetic experience (which is a reasonable research project).

It sounds like you acquired Portuguese and German simultaneously so you have two "first languages", but then German dominated Portuguese until that switched. I would say that the time-specific idea of "dominant language" is more useful than a purely historical question of what was "first".

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    ‘First’ and ‘second’ (and so on) can of course also refer to other things than strictly time-based order – in particular, it can be about preference and ability. When I talk about my ‘first language’, I’m usually talking about the language that comes at the top of the list of languages I speak, as ordered in descending order of fluency – whether or not that’s the language I first started babbling in when I was an infant (in my case, those happen to be the same language, but to many people they are different). Mar 13, 2022 at 17:16
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    "First" becomes even less meaningful when parents explicitly set out to raise a multi-lingual child, one parent only speaking one language, the other only speaking a different one. Mar 14, 2022 at 1:35
  • Two small of an edit, but they're spelled "postpartum" and "prenatal." Mar 14, 2022 at 18:32
  • The helper question is: In what language you dream? (Fallback: In what language you think?)
    – miroxlav
    Mar 16, 2022 at 1:25
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Yes. The phenomenon is known as "bilingual first language acquisition". See for instance https://repositories.lib.utexas.edu/handle/2152/22711

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In families of emigrants it is not uncommon that parents talk with their child in their native language that is then learned to a degree expected from that age. However when the child starts going to school, one learns the local language. If the child gets much more communication in the local language (friends, all day at school, etc), the language first learned can quickly lose the dominant status. It may be preserved with some effort but will not be preferred or better known. In such cases is probably legitimate to say a "native speaker" of both languages.

I moved myself to another country and also know multiple other families where this happened.

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My uncle married a Canadian woman, (my family is Swedish). My cousins grew up always speaking english to their mother and swedish to their father (their mother understands swedish but prefers not speaking it, so it's common to speak to her in swedish while she responds in english).

Anyways, because of this my cousins have always been equally fluent in swedish as in english, to the point they don't even seem to notice which language they are currently speaking in. Would that count as having two first languages or not?

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  • Indeed, having a "daddy language" and a "mommy language" is the most common and successful strategy for producing fluent bilingual native speakers.
    – jlawler
    Mar 25, 2022 at 16:31
  • @jlawler My guess would be that the second most common/sucessful is when a family moves abroad due to the parents' work and they grow up in a foreign country. Then they tend to get fluent in the local language from school and their parents' language at home. I have a friend who's mother worked in Nicaragua for SIDA (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency) but only for two years when he was in high school. That alone left him close to fluent in Spanish, so imagine if he'd spent most of his childhood there!
    – Anju Maaka
    Mar 25, 2022 at 22:49

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