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What Is a Second Language?

By Marlene de Wilde
Updated May 23, 2024
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A second language is a language that is learned in addition to a person's mother tongue, or first language. English is the second language learned by most people worldwide. These languages may be acquired by absorption, because it is spoken in the home, or actively pursued by taking courses. The more the language differs from a person's mother tongue in terms of alphabet and grammar, the more difficult it will be to learn. Modern technology, however, provides many resources to make the process easier and more fun.

Children can typically learn a second language much more easily than can adults, although there is no reason the latter cannot reach a proficient level in whichever language they wish to learn. Having a second — or third or fourth — language can be of great benefit when it comes to international business and travel. Learning a new language has also been associated with better reading ability in the mother tongue, improved test scores, and better performance at a college level, as it seems that the process improves thinking skills in general.

In the past, learning a new language likely meant sitting in a classroom and conjugating page after page of verbs. Today, there is more emphasis on achieving fluency and developing communication skills. This can make learning more fun, and the benefits become more obvious sooner. One way of learning a second language is through immersion, which involves being in an environment where that language is the only one that is used.

There is a wide range of resources available to the language learner. Computer programs and the Internet have rapidly become popular tools due to the wide array of valuable information, practice, and advice that they can offer to students. Some computer-based options for learning include online schools and classes that can be attended through the use of a webcam and microphone, self study courses with feedback given through email correspondence, and websites that answer users' questions.

Some students prefer the real classroom with a teacher who can give more immediate and personal responses and feedback. While in some classrooms, the teaching equipment remains limited to chalk and blackboard, many other facilities are equipped with interactive whiteboards, software and state-of-the-art recording capabilities. These tools can open up a world of learning, as students are able to take advantage of them to study the target language.

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Discussion Comments
By gravois — On Sep 12, 2012

Can anyone tell me about some of the major second language acquisition theories? I am interested in learning another language and I want to maximize my chances for success. What do the experts think the best way to learn is?

Also, I have heard a lot about Rosetta Stone. Has anyone tried it? Does it work?

By whiteplane — On Sep 11, 2012

One of my biggest regrets in life is that I never learned a second language. I had opportunities for sure. I took several years of both French and Spanish. I also lived abroad for a while. But I do not know more than a few words in phrases in another language and I would be lost if I could not find a person to speak English.

By bluedolphin — On Sep 02, 2012

@fify-- I don't think which language you choose matters. They will all help us understand and use language better in general. Although I do agree with the article that it's a lot easier to learn languages that are similar to your own.

For example, if you already speak a Latin based language, it's much easier to learn another Latin based language. That's why many people who speak Spanish can learn Italian very easily, and also the other way around.

I am fluent in two languages including my mother language, English. I'm also partially fluent in a third language. And I have to say that learning the third language has been a lot easier than learning the second one.

By fify — On Sep 02, 2012

So when we learn a second language, we actually become smarter. But why?

Is it the whole translation process that takes place in our head that develops our thinking skills?

And does it matter which language we choose to learn as our second language? Or are they all equally beneficial?

By burcinc — On Sep 01, 2012

English is my second language. My parents immigrated to the US when I was eight and I didn't speak any English when I came. I was basically signed up for school and learned as I went to school. But I have to say, it was really hard at first.

I had several additional language lessons to the regular ones the first year. Teachers would give me basic English lessons with flashcards and things like that to help me learn. It took about a year for me to be completely fluent and to understand everything I heard.

Now, it feels like English isn't my second language, but my mother tongue. Sometimes when people ask me which languages I speak, I tell them I'm bilingual.

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