Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The false dichotomy of your first language and your second languages

On a website called Literacy News, I came across an article called "How Is Language Learnt?", which is a summary of some of the major theories of language acquisition by a native-Arabic speaker who is learning English.

It contains a nice little encapsulation of an idea that is often treated as some kind of universal truth:
When we say language acquisition, [we] mean either the first language acquisition or the second language acquisition. In this domain, we should distinguish between the first language and the second language. The first language which acquires by a very young child (mother tongue), the second language which acquires by older learners, and it includes any language which learners acquire except their first language (mother tongue).
It's this first language (1L) / second language (2L) dichotomy that I'm skeptical of. The idea generally seems to be that when you're a kid, some language becomes your first and only native language. But I don't think that's always the case.

I'll use the example of my own daughter to disprove such an expansive rule. She has spoken Chinese, English, and Japanese for her entire speaking life. When she started speaking, we were living in China, and her strongest language was Chinese, followed by Japanese and then by English. We then moved to the States, where the order became English, Japanese, Chinese. Now we're in Japan and the order is Japanese, English, Chinese. It'd be very hard to label one of these as her "first" language, and saying that she has three "first" languages doesn't make a lot of sense either.

I think the more appropriate distinction here would be between "native" and "non-native" languages. Native languages seemed to be defined by two characteristics: (1) you learn them when you're small when your brain is particularly wired for certain language-learning activities (like accent acquisition) and (2) you learn them initially by pure exposure.

The fact that the first characteristic above is limited to very small children is really the main difference. You can always try to learn a language (very inefficiently) through pure exposure, but your brain will never be set up quite the same way in terms of language learning as when you're a very small child.


  1. Great point! I totally agree with your skepticism of the first/second language dichotomy. I think that the author of the article you discussed completely overlooked the fact that some people are brought up in multilingual households. I know at least a handful of people who have two or more native languages.

  2. In situations where speakers are raised with more than one language, I think it is better to think is terms of the dominant language instead of trying to identify the first language. Rather than putting emphasis on what was learned first, this puts the emphasis on which language the person is most fluent in.

    While there is not always going to be one native language, there is usually one dominant language. It would be difficult to maintain a perfect balance. Like you pointed out with your daughter, the place you live in has a big influence on which language is dominant.

  3. @Laura: When you're talking about someone who is fluent in multiple languages, I'm not sure that the idea of dominance is all that important. Let's say that at some point my daughter knows 20,000 words in Japanese and 25,000 in English, with all else being equal. You could say English is her dominant language, but practically speaking she'd have no problem doing anything in either language. After a certain threshold in your ability to use a language, the concept of "dominant" language seems to lose meaning.

  4. I think you're hung up on the fact that he numbered them. In terms of your daughter, she has 3 L1's: Chinese, Japanese and English. Anything she learns after that is an L2. (Although, if you learn a third -while- learning L2, that's L3 because it does actually work a bit differently.)

    And it is possible to learn an L2 just like you learn L1s, but you need a VERY nurturing 24/7 L2 environment. You need multiple people willing to talk to you and correct you constantly. It'd be just as frustrating now as it was when you were a baby. Luckily (or unluckily, I suppose) you don't remember how frustrating that was any more.

    BTW, I said L3 can be different because studies have shown that learning an L3 while learning L2 can actually speed the learning of both languages, as long as L2 gets more study time than L3.

  5. Yeah, I'd agree that I'm probably getting a bit hung up on the wording of the term, but can you fault me for liking things to mean what it sounds like they mean?

    That L2/L3 distinction is interesting. You emphasis "while". So if I learn an L2, stop my efforts in that, and move onto another language, does that make the next language an L2 or an L3?

  6. I'm conducting some polls on important issues of mastering various aspects of English as a second and a foreign language. Do you agree with the allegations below? I'd appreciate your response.

    between one's native language and English in pronunciation, grammar,
    vocabulary and
    stylistic usage should not be ignored by foreign learners living and
    learning English in non-English speaking countries to master English
    thoroughly. When learning and using English foreign learners cannot but
    notice those differences between English and their native language.
    Knowledge of those differences by foreign learners of English is
    essential for understanding correct forms, meaning and use of English
    grammar and for vocabulary usage to reduce making mistakes in English as
    much as possible, especially in fine tricky points of English grammar,
    vocabulary and stylistic usage. Native language interference when
    learning and using English by foreign learners is a natural thing
    equally as translation is a natural language activity in human
    communication. Therefore native language interference when learning and
    using English cannot be prevented or eliminated until English has been
    mastered by foreign learners as good as their native language. Knowledge
    of phonetic, grammatical, lexical and stylistic differences between
    English and one's native language weakens natural native language
    interference when learning and using English. In my view it is easier for foreign learners, especially for absolute
    beginners to study English for easier, better and quicker understanding through their native
    language explanations of English pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary.
    you know there are also English courses in English only for learning
    and practising all four skills in one course in each lesson (listening,
    speaking, reading and writing alongside pronunciation, grammar and
    vocabulary). Four skills English courses include textbooks with audio
    and video recordings for all levels including for beginners and are
    suitable for self-study as well. There are also online English learning
    courses in English only. I believe English communicative integrated
    skills courses that practise listening, speaking, reading and writing
    alongside pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary are the most effective
    and the most comprehensive courses for adult learners of English. Would
    most foreign learners of English prefer bilingual English learning
    courses to monolingual English courses?