A foreign language is a language that is not an official language of, nor typically spoken in, a specific country. Native speakers from that country usually need to acquire it through conscious learning, such as through language lessons at school, self-teaching, or attending language courses. A foreign language might be learned as a second language; however, there is a distinction between the two terms. A second language refers to a language that plays a significant role in the region where the speaker lives[citation needed], whether for communication, education, business, or governance. Consequently, a second language is not necessarily a foreign language.

Children who learn more than one language from birth or at a very young age are considered bilingual or multilingual. These children can be said to have two, three, or more mother tongues, meaning these languages would not be considered foreign to them, even if one language is a foreign language for the majority of people in the child's birth country. For instance, a child learning English from their English parent and Irish at school in Ireland can speak both English and Irish, but neither is a foreign language for them. This situation is common in countries like India, South Africa, or Canada, which have multiple official languages.

In general, it is believed that children have an advantage in learning foreign languages compared to adults. However, studies have shown that pre-existing knowledge of language and grammar rules, as well as a superior ability to memorize vocabulary, may benefit adults when learning foreign languages.[1][2]

Foreign-language education and ability

Main article: Language education

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Most schools around the world teach at least one foreign language and most colleges and high schools require foreign language before graduation. By 1998, nearly all pupils in Europe studied at least one foreign language as part of their compulsory education, the only exception being Ireland, where primary and secondary schoolchildren learn both Irish and English, but neither is considered a foreign language (although Irish pupils do study a third European language). On average in Europe, at the start of foreign-language teaching, learners have lessons for three to four hours a week. Compulsory lessons in a foreign language normally start at the end of primary school or the start of secondary school. In Luxembourg, Norway and Malta, however, the first foreign language is studied at age six, and in Flanders at age 10.[3][note 1] In Wales, all children are taught Welsh from the first year of primary school. The Welsh language is also compulsory up to the age of 16, although a formal GCSE qualification is optional.

In some countries, learners have lessons taken entirely in a foreign language: for example, more than half of European countries with a minority/regional language community use partial immersion to teach both the minority and the state language. This method is also highly used in Canada, wherein anglophone students spend all of most of their lessons learning the materials in French.

In 1995, the European Commission's White Paper on Education and Training emphasised the importance of schoolchildren learning at least two foreign languages before upper secondary education. The Lisbon Summit of 2000 defined languages as one of the five key skills.[citation needed]

Despite the high rate of foreign-language teaching in schools, the number of adults claiming to speak a foreign language is generally lower than might be expected. This is particularly true of native English speakers: in 2004 a British survey by recruitment firm Office Angels showed that fewer than one in 10 UK workers could speak a foreign language and that less than 5% could count to 20 in a second language.[4] In 2012, a European Commission survey found that 61% of respondents in the UK were unlikely to speak any language other than their mother tongue (page 5).

Since the 1990s, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages has tried to standardise the learning of languages across Europe.

An article from The Atlantic claims that only 1 percent of the adults within the US population consider themselves proficient in speaking a foreign language. This is in stark contrast to many other countries, where the percentage is much higher. Even though there are many benefits that come with learning a foreign language, schools across the United States continue to cut foreign language from their budgets.[5]


Main articles: Non-native pronunciations of English and Anglophone pronunciation of foreign languages

Instruments for foreign-language learning

Main article: Language education

In recent years, computer-assisted language learning has been integrated into foreign-language education and computer programs with varying levels of interactional relationship between computer and the language learner have been developed.[6] Language learning aids such as foreign-language writing aid and foreign-language reading aid, targeted at the specific language skills of foreign-language learners, are also alternative instruments available for foreign-language learners.

Research into foreign-language learning

Main article: Second-language acquisition

Learning a foreign language provides various benefits, ranging from improving career opportunities to enhancing cognitive abilities.

In 2004, the Michel Thomas Language Centre in the United Kingdom conducted a study that found that speaking a second language could increase an average worker's salary by £3000 (€3 300) a year, or £145 000 (€159 000) in a lifetime, and are also more likely to be more successful with the opposite sex.[7][8] Further results showed that nine out of 10 British companies thought their businesses could benefit from better language skills. Studies show that a bilingual or multilingual person can earn much more than a computer programmer or engineer because they can use their abilities in foreign language to obtain success in a wide range of career paths. In addition, due to the increase in the number of people from different parts of the world, a multilingual person can more easily communicate with prospective customers.

Also in 2004, a study by University College London (UCL) examined the brains of 105 people who could speak more than one language.[9] The study found that people who learned a second language when younger had denser grey matter than those who learned one later.[9] Grey matter is an area of the brain where information is most efficiently processed, due to the function of specialized cells called neurons. The researchers concluded that learning a second language changes the structure of the brain and enhances its functionality.[9][10]

A series of experiments on more than 300 people from the U.S. and Korea found that thinking in a second language reduced deep-seated, misleading biases that unduly influence how risks and benefits are perceived.[11]

Other research has shown that early exposure to a second language increases divergent thinking strategies,[12] which helps not only in language-related tasks, but also in areas such as math. Children who are exposed to a second language early on have different ways of expressing themselves, which helps them better understand that there is more than one way to look at a problem and that there is more than one solution.

Another benefit of learning a foreign language is that it improves one's attention span and ability to multitask. A study by the University of the Potomac found that bilinguals have better control over their attention and can switch between tasks more easily than monolinguals.[13] This is because bilinguals have to constantly monitor which language they are using and suppress the interference from the other language. This mental exercise trains their executive function, which is responsible for planning, organizing, problem-solving and decision-making. Learning a foreign language also boosts one's creativity, as it exposes them to new ways of expressing ideas and thinking outside the box.[14]

Learning a foreign language also has positive effects on one's first language. According to the Cambridge Assessment English blog, learning another language helps students improve their literacy skills in their native language, as they become more aware of grammar, vocabulary and sentence structure.[15] Learning a foreign language also enhances one's understanding of other cultures and perspectives, as they can access more information and entertainment sources in different languages and communicate with people from diverse backgrounds. This can foster empathy, tolerance and respect for others.

In summary, learning a foreign language is not only useful for practical purposes, but also beneficial for cognitive, social and personal development. It can improve one's brain power, memory, concentration, creativity, communication skills and cultural awareness. It can also open up new opportunities for education, work and travel. Therefore, learning a foreign language is a worthwhile investment for anyone who wants to enrich their lives and broaden their horizons.

Foreign language versus second language

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Although significant differences between the definitions of second language and foreign language may be hard to find as the two terms are often taken as synonyms, research has been carried out to shed light on the differentiating traits of the two. The distinction between acronyms TESL (Teaching of English as a Second Language) and TEFL (Teaching of English as a Foreign Language) shows the attention different researchers have paid to the concepts of foreign language and second language.

Richards and Schmidt (2002: 472) provide the following information about second language:

"In a broad sense, any language learned after one has learnt one's native language [is called second language]. However, when contrasted with foreign language, the term refers more narrowly to a language that plays a major role in a particular country or region though it may not be the first language of many people who use it. For example, the learning of English by immigrants in the US or the learning of Catalan by speakers of Spanish in Catalonia (an autonomous region of Spain) are cases of second (not foreign) language learning, because those languages are necessary for survival in those societies. English is also a second language for many people in countries like Nigeria, India, Singapore and the Philippines (plus Spanish), because English fulfills many important functions in those countries (including the business of education and government) and Learning English is necessary to be successful within that context. (Some people in these countries however may acquire English as a first language, if it is the main language used at home)."[16]

They also define a foreign language as a language which is not the native language of large numbers of people in a particular country of region, is not used as a medium of instruction in schools and is not widely used as a medium of communication in government, media, etc. They note that foreign languages are typically taught as school subjects for the purpose of communicating with foreigners or for reading printed materials in the language.[16] For example, French is a foreign language for most people in England. However, French is not a foreign language for most people in France.

Crystal (2003) notes that first language is distinguishable from second language (a language other than one's mother-tongue used for a special purpose, e.g. for education, government) distinguishable in turn from foreign language (where no such special status is implied).[17] He also notes that the distinction between the latter two is not universally recognised (especially not in the US).

Stern (1983) believes that there is today consensus that a necessary distinction is to be made between a non-native language learnt and used within one country to which the term second language has been applied and a non-native language learnt and used with reference to a speech community outside national or territorial boundaries to which the term foreign language is commonly given. He argues that while the distinction between 'second' and 'foreign' has a certain justification, it is perhaps less important than it has sometimes been made out to be and it may be misleading. He notes that the distinction became popular after World War II in international organisations, such as UNESCO, in order to meet nationalist susceptibilities in discussions on language questions.[18]

Fasold and Connor-Linton (2006), Falk (1978) and Hudson (2000) provide similar definitions for the two terms.[19][20][21] O'Grady et al. (1384) do not mention the exact terms 'second' and 'foreign' language, but they emphasise on the role of learning environment in teaching non-native languages.[22]

So, the distinction between 'second language' and 'foreign language' is a geographical and environmental distinction. We can mention 'second-language situation' and 'foreign-language situation' as two situations of learning, not two kinds of languages. So a foreign language is not always a foreign language and a second language is not always a second language. Since the distinction is geographical, the two situations (learning second language and learning foreign language) can be considered as a continuum. At one extreme, we may find learners learning without external help and direction purely from exposure to the non-native language through living in the target language environment (second-language learning) and at the other we find learners learning the non-native language exclusively in language teaching setting and classrooms (foreign-language learning).

A 'second language' usually has official status or a recognised function within a country which a foreign language has not and furthermore these two different situations frequently have important consequences to which attention has been drawn in some books. For example, Persian is a second language for Kurdish people, but not vice versa, because there is no Kurdish environment for Persian speakers who are learning Kurdish. On the other hand, English is a foreign language for both groups, because there is no contact between Kurdish and Persian people with English people. However, if an Iranian person goes to United States, then English becomes a second language for them. Thus, British immigrants to Iran learn Persian as a second language, and Persian speakers study English in Britain as a second language. Meanwhile, people in Kurdistan can speak of learning Kurdish by Persian speakers as a second rather than foreign language.

The purposes of second-language learning are often different from foreign-language learning. Second language is needed for full participation in the political and economic life of the nation, because it is frequently the official language or one of two or more recognised languages. It may be the language needed for education. Among the purposes of foreign-language learning are traveling abroad, communication with native speakers, reading foreign literature or scientific and technical works.

There are some major differences between foreign and second language teaching and learning. In second-language learning, one can receive input for learning both inside and outside the classroom. They can readily put to use what is learned, as can the child learning its first language, so much naturalistic practice is possible.

Second-language learners are usually more successful in developing non-native language skills and what is learned may be essential for getting along in the community, so motivation is stronger.

Acculturation that is a main aspect of learning a language is easier in the case of second-language learning and the emotional role of language (as opposed to communicational role) is easier to use for learners.

The major characteristics of the planned condition of the classroom in the case of foreign-language learning as opposed to natural conditions of second-language learning are:

  1. Psycho-social demands of classroom: The school classroom requires adjustment of the learner to the group processes, classroom discipline and procedures. The learner receives only a limited amount of individual attention. Regular attendance is required.
  2. Preselected language data: The teacher generally introduces preselected target language items. Spontaneity is limited. A planned curriculum is followed with the teacher attempting to realize certain goals regarding the language that is to be learned.
  3. Grammatical rules presented. The teacher may describe a rule in the native language to explain a grammatical structure. The teacher is expected to understand, assimilate and later apply the abstract rule.
  4. Unreal limited situations. Situations for language use in the classroom are limited in variety and scope as compared to those outside of the classroom. The situations which are employed are often simulated.
  5. Educational aids and assignments. In order to assist learning and achieve teacher goals, books, writing or a language lab, for example, may be used. Work assignments may be given to be completed in the class or at home.

There are some other issues in teaching and learning foreign language and second language including the type of motivation and the distinction between 'learning' and 'acquisition' that I will discuss them in separate parts.

Acquisition versus learning

In linguistic and pedagogic literature, there is often a distinction made between acquisition and language learning. Children are said to 'acquire' their native language, as they begin with no prior information or knowledge, whereas adults are said to 'learn' a non-native language. Acquisition is viewed as a natural, unconscious, untaught, and possibly unteachable process, while learning is seen as more artificial, usually conscious and possibly dependent on instruction and study.

This distinction between acquisition and learning can be useful in discussing language learning, as the general conditions in the case of second language acquisition offer opportunities for acquisition, as it is informal, free, undirected, and naturalistic. Conversely, in the case of foreign language learning, educational treatment may offer opportunities primarily for learning.

However, it is important to note that acquisition can occur in the case of foreign-language learning, and learning can occur in the case of second-language learning. For example, immigrants to the US may attend language teaching classes in the target language environment, allowing for both acquisition and learning. Similarly, foreign-language learners who are far from the target language environment may still acquire language through exposure to media such as foreign radio or literature.

In conclusion, while the distinction between acquisition and learning is useful in understanding language acquisition and learning, it is important to recognize that both processes can occur in various language learning contexts. Therefore, it is essential to employ a variety of language learning strategies and techniques, tailored to the specific learner's needs and goals, to maximize language acquisition and learning.

See also


  1. ^ Children in the Flemish Community of Belgium start learning French at age 10, English at 12 or 13 and, if chosen so, mostly German or Spanish at age 15 or 16, but with only the first two being obligatory. In the Brussels Capital Region, however, French is taught starting at age 8.


  1. ^ Merritt, Anne (2013-09-18). "Merritt, Anne. "Are Children Really Better at Foreign Language Learning?"". Telegraph.co.uk. Archived from the original on 2016-05-11. Retrieved 2016-05-15.
  2. ^ Service, Elisabet; Yli-Kaitala, Hely; Maury, Sini; Kim, Jeong-Young (2014-04-26). "Adults' and 8-Year-Olds' Learning in a Foreign Word Repetition Task: Similar and Different: Adults' and Children's Foreign Word Repetition" (PDF). Language Learning. 64 (2): 215–246. doi:10.1111/lang.12051. hdl:11375/23532. Retrieved 2022-07-11 – via MacSphere - McMaster University Libraries Institutional Repository.
  3. ^ "De lat hoog voor talen in iedere school" [Raising the bar for languages in every school] (in Dutch). Archived from the original on 2007-01-12.
  4. ^ Robb, Stephen (2004-07-29). "Why Britons are 'language barbarians'". BBC News. Retrieved 2022-07-10.
  5. ^ Friedman, Amelia (2015-05-10). "America's Lacking Language Skills". The Atlantic. Retrieved 2022-07-10.
  6. ^ Palmberg, Rolf (1989). "Integrating CALL into Foreign-Language Teaching". Special Languages and Second Languages: Methodology and Research. 47 – via Education Resources Information Center.
  7. ^ "Languages 'boost work and love'". November 2004.
  8. ^ "Life is better for linguists, survey finds". The Guardian. 2004-11-01. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 2023-05-05.
  9. ^ a b c "Learning languages 'boosts brain'". BBC News. 2004-10-13. Archived from the original on 2017-01-26. Retrieved 2017-02-01.
  10. ^ Pilcher, Helen (2004-07-21). "Grey matter matters for intellect". Nature News: news040719–11. doi:10.1038/news040719-11. Archived from the original on 2017-02-17.
  11. ^ Keim, Brandon. "Thinking in a Foreign Language Makes Decisions More Rational". WIRED. Archived from the original on 2017-11-17. Retrieved 2017-11-16.
  12. ^ Diaz, Rafael M. (1983-01-01). "Chapter 2: Thought and Two Languages: The Impact of Bilingualism on Cognitive Development". Review of Research in Education. 10 (1): 23–54. doi:10.3102/0091732X010001023. ISSN 0091-732X. JSTOR 1167134. S2CID 143909423.
  13. ^ "9 Benefits of Learning a Second Language | University of the Potomac". 2021-12-05. Retrieved 2023-05-05.
  14. ^ "12 Awesome Advantages of Learning a Foreign Language". FluentU Language Learning. 2015-03-09. Retrieved 2023-05-05.
  15. ^ Spence, Carley (2022-04-29). "How learning a new language changes your brain | Cambridge English". World of Better Learning | Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 2023-05-05.
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  21. ^ Hudson, R.A. (2000). Sociolinguistics: Second Edition. Cambridge University Press.
  22. ^ O'Grady, W.; Dobrovolsky, M.; Aronoff, M. (1997). Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. St. Martin's Press.