Second Language Learning versus Foreign Language Learning
Vivian Cook
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Extract adapted from 2010 paper

The second versus foreign language distinction was introduced into EFL teaching in the 1950s (Howatt, 1984). A typical definition can be found in Klein (1986: 19):

… “foreign language’ is used to denote a language acquired in a milieu where it is normally not in use … A “second language” on the other hand, is one that becomes another tool of communication alongside the first language; it is typically acquired in a social environment in which it is actually spoken.

This incorporates two contrasts. One is function: a second language meets a real‑life need of the L2 user, say to communicate with the majority community – a Chinese speaker using English in Newcastle upon Tyne; a foreign language fulfils no current need for the speaker – a Newcastle schoolchild learning French. The other contrast is location: a second language is learnt in a milieu where it is used by native speakers – German in Berlin; a foreign language is learnt in a place where it is not widely used – German in Japan. Block (2003) draws out the further contrast that a second language is acquired naturalistically, a foreign language is learnt in a classroom.

Much SLA discussion does not take the second/foreign distinction on board, either rejecting it explicitly (Ellis, 1985: 2; Mitchell & Myles, 1998: 2), or playing safe by referring to ‘the learner of a second or foreign language’ (Council of Europe, 1997: 12), or using alternative formulations such as ‘first’ versus ‘foreign’ (Johnson, 2001). The second/foreign distinction is far from transparent. I used to teach English as a Foreign Language in London to students intending to return shortly to their own countries despite currently using it as a second language; students at English-medium universities may effectively be using it as a second language whether in Saudi Arabia or the Netherlands.

De Groot & Hell (2005: 25) perceive a difference between North American usage, where a language not native to a country can be either ‘foreign’ or ‘second’, and British usage, where ‘foreign’ means not spoken in a country and ‘second’ means not ‘native’ but used widely as medium of communication, say English in Nigeria. There is the additional confusion that what is referred to as ‘foreign language teaching’ in North America is often called ‘modern language teaching’ in Europe. Stern (1983: 10) sums up: ‘ “foreign language” can be subjectively “a language which is not my L1” or objectively “a language which has no legal status within the national boundaries” ’.

The distinction was useful for EFL teachers in capturing two broad perspectives on their work. It applies most easily to languages that are confined to one locale: Finnish is either a foreign language outside Finland or a second language for people acquiring it within Finland. It is more problematic when it concerns languages that are widely spoken by non-native speakers to other non-native speakers across the globe (Berns, 1990). A second language is presumably a Lang4 [a language that is a shared possession of a community]; acquiring a second language allows you to join another community. A foreign language, however, in one sense is the Lang2 [language as an abstract entity] laid down as a goal by education, in another the individual’s Lang4 or Lang5 [language as individual knowledge] potential stored up for future use.

A wide variety of people are learning second languages in diverse situations for multiple functions. ‘First’ or ‘second’ language are historical terms inadequate to cover the complexity of language in our societies and in our minds. The second/foreign language distinction oversimplifies the myriad dimensions of second language learning, as the papers in VanPatten and Lee (1990) bear out. In particular it applies uneasily to heritage language learning where people are acquiring a language that is culturally important to them, say Mandarin for those of Chinese origin (who may speak other Chinese dialects such as Cantonese), or Polish for those of Polish descent in London: 140,000 people are attending heritage Chinese classes in the United States (Brecht & Rivers, 2005). The reason for learning a heritage language is not primarily to use it as a second or foreign language but to identify with a particular cultural tradition. Similarly while school teaching of a modern language has often been seen as involving a ‘foreign’ language, depending on circumstance, it has only future use for the learners as a foreign language, many of whom will never use it for second or foreign purposes; it is just a subject on the academic curriculum, neither second nor foreign.

Many researchers manage perfectly well without the second/foreign distinction. Ellis (1994: 12) nevertheless claims ‘it is possible there will be radical differences in both what is learnt and how it is learnt’ in second and foreign situations. True as this may be, without more evidence, we cannot tell if this two-way distinction is more crucial than any of the others. Cook (2009) argues for a spectrum of at least six groups of language users [native, L2 users within a larger community, international ESP use, global multi-functional use, heritage, L2 users with close relatives]. Rather than a simple opposition of second and foreign, we need multiple distinctions to capture the range of people acquiring second languages. While SLA research is doubtless stuck with the word ‘second’ in its name, this does not means it cannot be more rigorous in the ways it actually approaches the diverse situations of second language learning.

Some References

Cook, V.J. 2009. Language User Groups and language teaching. In Cook, V.J. & Li Wei (eds), Contemporary Applied Linguistics, Vol 1. London : Continuum, 54-74

Klein, W. 1986. Second Language Acquisition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ortega, L. 2009. Understanding Second Language Acquisition. London: Hodder Education.

For other references go to the full article.