Second language

A second language (L2) is any language learned after the first language or mother tongue (L1). Some languages, often called auxiliary languages, are used primarily as second languages or lingua francas.

It is quite possible that the first language a person learns may no longer be their dominant language, that is, the one he or she uses most or the one with which he or she is most comfortable in. For example, the Canadian census defines "first language" for its purposes as "the first language learned in childhood and still spoken", recognizing that for some, the earliest language may be lost, a process known as language attrition. This can happen when young children move, with or without their family (because of immigration or international adoption), to a new language environment.


According to some researchers, the defining difference between a first language (L1) and a second language (L2) is the age at which the language was learned. For example, linguist Eric Lenneberg used "second language" to mean a language consciously acquired or used by its speaker after puberty. In most cases, people never achieve the same level of fluency and comprehension in their second languages as in their first language. These views are closely associated with the Critical Period Hypothesis.

In acquiring an L2, Hyltenstam (1992) found that around the age of 6 and 7 seemed to be a cut-off point for bilinguals to achieve native-like proficiency. After that age, L2 learners could get "near-native-like-ness" but their language would, while consisting of very few actual errors, have enough errors that would set them apart from the L1 group. The inability of some of the subjects to achieve native-like proficiency must be seen in relation to the "age of onset" (AO). “The age of 6 or 8 does seem to be an important period in distinguishing between near-native and native-like ultimate attainment... More specifically, it may be suggested that AO interacts with frequency and intensity of language use” (Hyltenstam, 1992, p. 364).

Later, Hyltenstam & Abrahamsson (2003) modified their age cut-offs to argue that after childhood, in general, it becomes more and more difficult to acquire native-like-ness, but that there is no cut-off point in particular. Furthermore, they discuss a number of cases where a native-like L2 was acquired during adulthood.

imilarities and differences between L2 and L1


Acquiring a second language can be a lifelong learning process for many. Despite persistent efforts, most learners of a second language will never become fully "native-like" in it, although with practice considerable fluency can be achieved. However, children by around the age of 5 have more or less mastered their first language, with the exception of vocabulary and a few grammatical structures.


Acquiring a second language occurs in systematic stages. Much evidence has been gathered to show that basic sounds, vocabulary, negating phrases, forming questions, using relative clauses, and so on are developed. This development is independent of input (we do not hear nor read language in this order) and learning situation (in the classroom or on the street). It is also generally applicable across a spectrum of learners (from different language backgrounds). This is similar to the learning stages that babies go through when acquiring the first language: babbling ("bababa"), vocabulary ("milk" then later "milk drink"), negation ("no play"), question forming ("where she go"), and so on.


Error correction does not seem to have a "direct" influence on learning a second language. Instruction may affect the "rate" of learning, but the "stages" remain the same. Adolescents and adults who "know the rule" are faster than those who do not. In the first language, children do not respond to systematic correction. Furthermore, children who have limited input still acquire the first language.

Depth of knowledge

Learners in the first or second language have knowledge that goes beyond the input they received, in other words, the whole is greater than the parts. Learners of a language are able to construct correct utterances (e.g. phrases, sentences, and questions) that they have never seen or heard before.


Success in language learning can be measured in two ways: likelihood and quality. First language learners "will" be successful in both measurements. It is inevitable that all first language learners will learn a first language and with few exceptions, they will be fully successful. For second language learners, success is not guaranteed. For one, learners may become fossilized or "stuck" as it were with ungrammatical items. (Fossilization occurs when language errors become a permanent feature. See Canale & Swain (1980), Johnson (1992), Selinker (1972), and Selinker and Lamendella (1978)). The difference between learners may be significant. Finally, as noted elsewhere, L2 learners rarely achieve complete "native-like" control of the second language.

Theories of second language acquisition (SLA)

The distinction between acquiring and learning was made by Stephen Krashen (1982) as part of his Monitor Theory. According to Krashen, the "acquisition" of a language is a natural process; whereas "learning" a language is a conscious one. In the former, the student needs to partake in natural communicative situations. In the latter, error correction is present, as is the study of grammatical rules isolated from natural language. Not all educators in second language agree to this distinction; however, the study of how a second language is "learned/acquired" is referred to as "Second Language Acquisition" or SLA.

Research in SLA "focuses on the developing knowledge and use of a language by children and adults who already know at least one other language... [and] a knowledge of second language acquisition may help educational policy makers set more realistic goals for programmes for both foreign language courses and the learning of the majority language by minority language children and adults" (Spada & Lightbown, p. 115).

SLA has been influenced by both linguistic and psychological theories. One of the dominant linguistic theories hypothesizes that a "device" or "module" of sorts in the brain contains innate knowledge. Many psychological theories, on the other hand, hypothesize that cognitive mechanisms, responsible for much of human learning, process language.

Foreign language

In pedagogy, a distinction is often made between 'second language' and foreign language, the latter being learned for use in an area where that language is not generally spoken. Arguably, English in countries such as India, the Scandinavian countries, and the Netherlands can be considered a second language for many of its speakers, because they learn it young, speak it fluently, and use it regularly.

The same can be said for French in the Arab Maghreb Union, except for Libya, although--like for English in the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands--French is not an official language in any of these Arab countries. The same can also be said for the rest of sub-Saharan Francophone Africa, except that, in all Francophone sub-Saharan African countries other than Mauritania, French is an official language. In the post-Soviet states states such as Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazahstan, Russian can be considered a second language, and there are large Russophone communities there.

In China, however, English would be considered a foreign language due to the lack of a number of characteristics, such as historical links, media, opportunities for use, similar vocabulary, and common script. Although Egypt, like most of the other Arab Persian Gulf states, were once British colonies, English, like in China, is a foreign language in Egypt (see Education in Egypt).

French would be considered a foreign language in Romania, Lebanon and Moldova as well. This is despite Romanian and French being romance languages (unlike Chinese and English, which come from two different language families). This is also despite Romania and Moldova being the only two countries in the world where Romanian is an official language at the federal level, Romania's historical links to France, and both Roumanophone countries' membership in the Francophonie. For Lebanon, French would be considered a foreign language, even though most of its universities operate in either that language or English, French is an administrative language and--like Romania--Lebanon has historical ties to France and is a Francophonie member state.

ee also

*Computer-assisted language learning
*English language learning and teaching
*First language
*Foreign language influences in English
*Heritage speaker
*ILR scale
*Language attrition
*Language education
*Language transfer
*Second language acquisition

Further reading

*Canale, M. and Swain, M. (1980). Theoretical bases of communicative approaches to second language teaching and testing. "Applied Linguistics, 1, 1-47.
*Johnson, H. (1992). Defossilizing. "ELT Journal", 46/2, 180-9.
*Mangubhai, F. (2006). What do we know about learning and teaching second languages: Implications for teaching. "Asian EFL Journal" 8(3) [ [ Asian EFL Journal: English Language Teaching and Research Articles ] ]
*Selinker, L. (1972). Interlanguage. "International Review of Applied Linguistics", 10, 209-31.
*Selinker, L. and Lamendella, J. (1978). Two perspectives on fossilization in interlanguage learning. "Interlanguage Studies Bulletin", 3, 143-91.


*Chomsky, N. (1968). "Language and Mind". New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
*Hyltenstam, K. (1992). Non-native Features of Near-native Speakers: On the Ultimate Attainment of Childhood L2 Learners. In R.J. Harris (Ed.), Cognitive Processing in Bilinguals (pp. 351-367). Amsterdam: North-Holland.
*Hyltenstam, K & Abrahamsson, N (2003). Maturational Constraints in SLA. In Doughty & Long (Eds.), The Handbook of Second Language Acquisition. Rowley, MA: Blackwell.
*Krashen, S. D. (1982). "Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition". Oxford: Pergamon Institute of English.
*Spada, N. and Lightbown, P.M. (2002). Second Language Acquisition. In Schmitt, N. "An Introduction to Applied Linguistics". London: Arnold.

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • second language — second languages N COUNT Someone s second language is a language which is not their native language but which they use at work or at school. Lucy teaches English as a second language... French remained her second language for the rest of her life …   English dictionary

  • second language — n [C usually singular] a language that you speak in addition to the language you learned as a child …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • second language — noun count a language that you can speak but which is not your main language …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • second language — 1. a language learned by a person after his or her native language, esp. as a resident of an area where it is in general use. 2. a language widely used, esp. in educational and governmental functions in a region where all or most of its speakers… …   Useful english dictionary

  • Second Language (ep) — Infobox Album | Name = Second Language Type = EP Artist = Disco Inferno Released = 1994 Recorded = UK Genre = Experimental rock Length = 16:12 Label = Producer = Reviews = Last album = The Last Dance (1993, EP) This album = Second Language (1994 …   Wikipedia

  • second language — UK / US noun [countable] Word forms second language : singular second language plural second languages linguistics a language that you can speak but which is not your main language …   English dictionary

  • second language — noun A language that is not a mother tongue of someone. My second languages are Italian and German …   Wiktionary

  • second language — 1. a language learned by a person after his or her native language, esp. as a resident of an area where it is in general use. 2. a language widely used, esp. in educational and governmental functions in a region where all or most of its speakers… …   Universalium

  • second language — sec′ond lan′guage n. 1) ling. a language learned by a person after his or her native language, esp. as a resident of an area where it is in general use 2) ling. a language widely used, esp. in trade, government, and education, in a region where… …   From formal English to slang

  • second language — noun (countable usually singular) a language that you speak in addition to the language you learned as a child …   Longman dictionary of contemporary English

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.