The Mother Tongue’s Importance: Why A Translator Must Work Only Into Their Mother Tongue

At Alexika, we have a golden rule: that translators must only work into their mother tongue. We’ve had this rule since establishing ourselves in 1998. It means that, for example, a translator with a French native tongue must only translate into French.

Why, though? With some truly incredible linguists out there, isn’t this a rather restrictive hard-and-fast rule? After all, we’ve all heard of those astonishing folks who are able to read, understand and articulate themselves perfectly fluently in multiple languages...

That said, we believe that in order to get the most authentic translation, you should only settle for a translator who works into their mother tongue. Our golden rule isn’t changing. Why so? Allow us to explain.

What is your ‘mother tongue’?

Mother tongue, father tongue, native language, first language, arterial language - or, more contemporarily, L1. All fairly synonymous, yet potentially vague, so just what do we mean? The Cambridge Dictionary defines mother tongue as:

“The first language that you learn when you are a baby, rather than a language learned at school or as an adult”

Seems fairly simple, but can we get a bit more specific? Joseph Lee’s journal piece “The Native Speaker: An Achievable Model?” incorporates a range of scholarly definitions, from which we’ve drawn inspiration for our own preconditions for what makes a ‘mother tongue’ translator. In our eyes, the following must be true for a language to be considered as someone’s mother tongue:

  1. The individual acquired the language in early childhood
  2. The individual has intuitive knowledge of the language
  3. The individual is able to produce fluent, spontaneous discourse
  4. The individual identifies with or is identified by a language community
  5. The individual has a native dialect or accent (this includes formal dialects such as ‘Hochdeutsch’)

What, then, you may ask, makes a mother tongue translator so essential for your translation project? Here are our FIVE reasons:

1. Mother tongue translation is the most authentic

Unfortunately, when someone writes in their L2 - second language - no matter how skilled, there are almost always giveaway signs that occasionally creep in, betraying that they are not operating in their mother tongue. This can damage the authenticity of the message.

The understanding of nuance and complexity that comes as a native speaker is very hard to replicate in a learned language. Your L1 is the language in which you have the strongest grasp of cultural nuances and the widest vocabulary, by far. In a long, complex piece of translation, there usually reaches a point where a ‘mother tongue’ understanding is needed.

2. Mother tongue speakers are most likely to nail your pitch

When you navigate a poorly translated website, you’re never totally instilled with confidence in what the company is offering. We don’t want this to be the case for our clients; even very occasional errors in vocabulary or grammar can be red flags for customers and harm your bottom line. This is a risk that is taken out of the equation by having the job done by a native speaker of the target language.

3. Localisation is crucial

It’s not just trust signals, either. Shoddily-translated websites can even be offensive - certainly not the message you want to be conveying to new marketplaces. A ‘mother tongue’ translator will have the best chance of nailing all the cultural nuances. This means, for example, using a Canadian translator for a translation project intended for French-speaking Canada - not one from France. Those localisations, taking cultural sensitivity into account, make all the difference.

4. Mother tongue translators might help you out on Google...

It’s no secret that a bad user experience can harm your placement on Google search pages. Spelling and grammar errors form part of this - and a mother tongue translator can help you out here. Behind the arcane algorithms dictating your placement on a Google search page, there does seem to be credibility to the claim that error-laden translated content, such as that being pushed by spammers, can penalise you. Choose mother tongue - your SEO will thank you.


5. It can get technical...

The work we carry out often features the rendering of highly technical subject matter.

No time for ambiguity. No, sir.

To translate a safety manual for a pneumatic drill you need not only an encyclopedic, highly specialised knowledge of technical and scientific terms, but also the ability to deploy these terms appropriately and concisely. One mistake could fatally obscure the meaning of your material, or worse, endanger life! So it needn’t be said that the financial and reputational price to the paid for ambiguous technical translation is hefty.

We’ve discussed why it’s crucial to get it right with technical translation, such as that completed for the engineering sector, on another blog post. Our insistence on mother tongue translation guarantees the very best job is completed for our clients who are looking for technical translation.

But I’m bilingual, I swear!

Contemplate Finland, Philippines and Belgium. There’s also a sizable bilingual belt in Canada - these countries, amongst many others, all have policies of official multilingualism. With that in mind, it’s quite plausible that a translator could grow up with an incredible working knowledge of multiple languages; perhaps with parents speaking different languages - and consider themselves to have two mother tongues.


However, it’s almost always the case there tends to be a bias towards one of these two languages. Usually, the instinctively-favoured language is that of their early education and social circles - their true native tongue - and, at Alexika, the one that they translate into.

We’ve stuck to our mother tongue translation ‘golden rule’ for over 20 years, and we think it’s served us well. However, we’d love to hear what you think - Let us know!

Want our mother tongue translators to get to work on your next project? Get in touch - we’d love to hear about your translation needs.