Second language vs. foreign language

In class, we briefly mentioned second language learning vs. foreign language learning, and I noted that I don’t typically make a distinction between the two.  But there are obvious differences between learning a language when surrounded by your native language, and learning it in the environment of the target language.  Discuss some of the differences, and, if you have an opinion, discuss whether you think a distinction should be made between them.  Before you respond to this question, you might become familiar with the discussion in Chapter 1 of Gass and Selinker.

12 Responses to “Second language vs. foreign language”

  1. Jill McCarty says:

    I understand and have no problem throwing both ideas (second language and foreign language) into one pot for means of overall discussion of SLA. I do, however, agree with Gass and Selinker (2009) that there are definite differences when you get down to it. This is somewhat of a silly personal example, but I took two years of Spanish in high school here in Texas, hardly using it outside the classroom (with a few exceptions of practicing with friends being native English speakers as well). Today, I could not tell you much of anything in Spanish. If, however, I had taken it in a Spanish speaking environment, I would most likely have practiced much more outside the classroom for ‘survival’ reasons. Though I have not experienced it first hand, I think immersion is the best way to learn a target language. You not only learn in the classroom, but outside it as well getting the more ‘pragmaticky’ types of things. I am interested to hear what perspective anyone else holds on the issue, being that I am not able to speak a language other than English.

  2. Jana says:

    Using SLA as both a general cover term (for learning another language outside of the primary one) and as a specific one (for learning a language where it is natively spoken) makes sense for the sake of accessible communication. First, we do not have another general term. Second, more often than not, we want to refer to the larger category. Third, we are accustomed to using one term for a specific and a general reference, like the word ‘coke’ in the South.

    Sure there are clear distinctions between the concepts of language learning that is second or foreign. But in reality, there are multiple factors that affect language learning other than a native environment, such as heritage influence. It is critical to be able to make those distinctions and use them appropriately when it is that factor (i.e. native environment, etc) itself that is under examination. But the nature of language learning is inherently complex. There are very few learners that fit nicely into just one category. Rather, learners have overlapping categories of learner influences. Gass and Selinker provide a pretty impressive chart breakdown on the term ‘bilingual’ in chapter two that functions in much the same way. I do not see a problem as long as the parameters of the code are made known. A simple explanation at the beginning of a discussion or text should be simple enough. However it would be nice if everyone in the field agreed upon the understanding and usage.

    Actually, we do something very similar in Phonology with the IPA. We know that [p] does not have the same qualities across languages. We even add diacritic, such as aspiration. Yet an aspirated ‘p’ in one language is not going to be exactly like an aspirated ‘p’ in another language. When we want to specifically compare data with those issues at stake, we can use other forms to get to the nitty gritty. But if we want to discuss some general features or issues for ‘P’s’ cross-linguistically, it can be helpful to use the generalized IPA code for accessibility’s sake. There seems to be no confusion with this similar case.

    Finally, we want to be as scientific as possible. We want to account for all the variables and factors as accurately as possible. But, the goal of research is GENERALIZATIONS! If we are not careful, we could lose sight of the value of the work.

  3. Namrata Dubey says:

    I would like to answer the second part of the question first i.e. as far as my opinion about making a distinction between SLA and FLA is concerned, I definitely consider them separate.

    The most significant difference I see between the two is that of acquiring vs learning. As I grew up acquiring ‘English’ as a Second Language, I never made an effort to learn it, mug up the rules, try to apply them at the right time in the right position etc.; it comes naturally, the way my mother tongue ‘Hindi’ does. On the other hand, after learning ‘German’ as a Foreign Language, I realize that in spite of years of learning that language, it doesn’t come naturally to me and I end up making a conscious effort to get the sentence structure right.

    Another aspect which comes to my mind here is that, one doesn’t seem to forget his/her second language (like mother tongue) even after not being in touch with it for a long period of time; whereas, one often tends to blank out on a foreign language unless practised regularly eg. vocabulary may shrink or fluency may wither.

  4. Mohamed Mwamzandi says:

    There is in deed a difference between Second Language (L2) learning and foreign language (FL) learning. Second language learning is the learning of a nonnative language in the enviroment of the native speakers of the language being learned while foreign language learning is learning a nonnative language in the enviroment of one’s own native language speakers.

    Language learning could be much easier in L2 learning than in FL learning. The L2 learner has the advantage of interaction with the native speakers, to a larger extent, than the foreign language learner. By interacting with native language speakers of L2, a L2 learner may learn the language outside classroom situation. A FL learner could also learn a nonnative language without formal learning in a classroom situation but deliberate effort such as the use of dictionaries and speaking to the few available native speakers of the L2 has to be made.

    A L2 learner has more exposure to the phonological, morphologica and syntactic structures of the nonnative language being learned. The FL learner, on the other hand, learns the language without access to the native speakers in actual contexts and situations. I recently talked to a relative who had learned Germany as a L2 in Kenya then travelled to Germany to undertake a postgraduate degree. She explained to me that she was only able to fully comprehend the German pronouns and other morphological features after her stay in Germany.

    A L2 learner has the advantage of learning the language and the culture of the L2 speakers. In the Swahili language, for example, native speakers will have different forms of greetings for speakers of different age and relationship. The young would greet the old; and the greeting word has to be “shi-ka-moo”…the respond would be “ma-r-ha-baa”. The L2 learner would have an access to the cultural aspects of language use since he would be interacting with the native speakers of the L2. In contrast, the FL learner will have little, if any, knowledge of the relationship between the foreign language and its culture.

    However, it is important to mention that there could be other variables which could impact negatively on the above observations. Other aspects such as attitude, the motivation to learn a L2, age, gender, to mention just but a few, may have an effect on L2 learning.

  5. Anna says:

    I agree with Namrata that FLA and SLA are different. Having access to native speakers and the necessity of using a language in an SLA setting allows the student to use the language in a more authentically communicative atmosphere. Language is about communication. It’s hard to replicate authentic communication in a classroom. In an EFL setting, the teacher has to work a lot harder/be more creative to have students access authentic communication–emailing English speaking pen pals, etc. I don’t think that one can effectively learn a language until they use it for communicative purposes. I may be able to fill out grammar charts and fill in the blanks of French grammar but I can barely form a sentence in regular speech because in my French class we memorized rules and vocabulary and even had to practice dialogues, but 3 hours a week pails in comparison to having to use it for the majority of your day to make sure you get fed or get to where you need to go.

  6. Clint Taylor says:

    Anna’s point about learning French in the US is well made. In fact, virtually no skills (e.g. piano, basketball, software) can be effectively learned by committing only 3 hours per week.

    I like how we are using the term ‘environment’ in our discussion, as opposed to saying country. For example, here in Arlington, we have a great environment to practice Spanish. Therefore, it’s clear that one doesn’t necessarily have to live outside the US in order to utilize a language other than English.

    Motivation is the key factor. For some, a job might depend on knowing a language. Others might dream of obtaining a higher academic degree. Personal relationships are another factor. To quote an old saying, “If there’s a will, there’s a way.”

  7. Micah says:

    For Second Language Acquisition purposes, I agree that both Second Language Learning (SLL) and Foreign Language Learning (FLL) are able to be boxed together but like many of us here, I also agree that they are two separate horses in the same stable. Just because they have similar features (i.e they both require learning a new language and are can be past the critical period) doesn’t mean they are the same. Environment, method of instruction, and instructor can affect whether a classroom is SLL or FLL.

  8. Micah says:

    For Second Language Acquisition purposes, I agree that both Second Language Learning (SLL) and Foreign Language Learning (FLL) are able to be boxed together but like many of us here, I also agree that they are two separate horses in the same stable. Just because they have similar features (i.e they both require learning a new language and are can be past the critical period) doesn’t mean they are the same. Environment, method of instruction, and instructor can affect whether a classroom is SLL or FLL.

    Many of ya’ll have said that if the learner is in their home area and learn the language without having to produce an output to a native speaker or use it in the native environment then it is FLL. If the learner acquires the second language in an environment surrounded by native speakers, then they are SLL. But what if they are learning a second language in a classroom that is taught by a native speaker?

    My Mandarin course was taught by native speakers. Though much of the method of instruction was initially in English, as time progressed, the course became more geared towards instruction in the second language. Sound structure and tone was emphasized by the native speaking instructor and students’ pronunciation was constantly being corrected. Because of the constant requirement for an output with a native speaker and requirement of learning with native speakers, the course blurs the lines between SLL and FLL.

    I believe that SLL can occur outside the parameters of the native speaking country so long as a native speaker is about to correct pronunciation. If the instructor is not a native speaker and one can be found outside the classroom to help with pronunciation, then the FLL can also transition to a SLL, so long as there is a stable amount of corrected output.

  9. Elizabeth Ingle says:

    FLA seems to me to be like learning a language in an environment where you don’t actually have to use the language on a daily basis, whereas SLA is a situation where learning it involves access to native speakers of that language and where it takes on a practical necessity.

    I don’t think I would have managed to make any sense of German had I not spent some time around native (and near-native) speakers of the language outside of the classroom; there is really a huge difference in the level of exposure and realizing practical application in just learning grammar or actually hearing it used organically.

    If anything, to me, it just seems to be a difference in how one learns the other language, not a difference in the fact of learning it.

  10. Zubair Masood says:

    I think that superficially the terms ‘Second language’ and ‘ foreign languge’ are the same but their major difference that if a learner is learning a target language in L1 enviornment its foreign language and if it is learnt or acquired in target language enviornment it is second language.
    The difference of these learning enviornment causes a huge difference in the profeciency of learners, As i am a non-native English speaker, I observed that in countries where English is not a native languge it is taught in schools and colleges like any other text book of General Science or Mathhmatics and so on, in classes all the lessons are translated line by line, students memorize the phrases and lines from the text book without even knowing the meaning to answer the questions on examination paper and thier language ability also remains on those papers and they never aquire spoken communicative skills just because the input of target language is not interactive. While there are examples of people though who are not even school educated but when they go overseas they aquire proficiency in target language better then those ten-year school pass out students.

  11. Jill McCarty says:

    Micah, I think you make a valid point about the potential gray lines between SLL and FLL. I think taking a FL from a native speaker is almost always going to be more beneficial for the learner, but I still think it should be considered FLL, instead of SLL because it is still be learned in a classroom where you walk right back outside to your L1 culture and speakers.

  12. Dulce de Castro says:

    Like many of you have pointed out, there is a difference between FLL and SLL. I think that for most language learners a higher proficiency level can be attained in a SLL environment, simply because there are more opportunities to be exposed to the target language and use it. However, one can learn a language very well in a FLL environment if one has motivation and perseverance, and the teaching method emphasizes the achievement of communicative competence regardless of whether the teacher is a native speaker or not. With the Internet and other technologies it is possible to have access to target language materials and native speakers on a daily basis. Thus, the distinction between FLL and SLL may not always be as clear-cut as some people think.
    Spanish (my native language) is the only language that I have not learned in a classroom setting and the only one that I learned as a child, but I have attained a high proficiency level in several of the languages that I have studied. As some of you mentioned, there are many factors that affect language learning, and the proficiency level may not depend so much on whether the language is learned in a SLL environment as opposed to a FLL setting.

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