What Is a Second Language (L2)?

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A second language is any language that a person uses other than a first or native language. Contemporary linguists and educators commonly use the term L1 to refer to a first or native language, and the term L2 to refer to a second language or a foreign language that's being studied.

Vivian Cook notes that "L2 users are not necessarily the same as L2 learners. Language users are exploiting whatever linguistic resources they have for real-life purposes . . . . Language learners are acquiring a system for later use" (Portraits of the L2 User, 2002).

Examples and Observations

"Some terms fall into more than one category. For example, '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.' There is simply a semantic confusion between the first two sets of terms and the third in the following instance in which a certain French Canadian said

I object to you speaking of 'learning French as a second language' in Canada: French is as much a first language as English.

It is indeed perfectly true to say that for most French Canadians French is the 'first language,' 'L1,' or 'mother tongue.' For them, English is a 'second language' or 'L2.' But for English native speakers in Canada French is a 'second language' or 'L2.' In this example, the confusion has been created by equating 'first' with 'national,' 'historically first' or 'important,' and 'second' with 'less important' or 'inferior,' and thus mixing up the third set of objective terms which attributes a position, value or status to a language with the first two sets of subjective terms which relate individuals and their use of languages. . . .

"The concept of L2 ('non-native language,' 'second language,' 'foreign language') implies the prior availability to the individual of an L1, in other words some form of bilingualism. Again, the use of the L2 set of terms has a dual function: it indicates something about the acquisition of the language and something about the nature of the command. . . .

"To sum up, the term 'second language' has two meanings. First, it refers to the chronology of language learning. A second langauge is any language acquired (or to be acquired) later than the native language. . . .

"Second, the term 'second language' is used to refer to the level of language command in comparison with a primary or dominant language. In this second sense, 'second language' indicates a lower level of actual or believed proficiency. Hence 'second' means also 'weaker' or 'secondary.'" (H. H. Stern, Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching. Oxford University Press, 1983)

The Number and Variety of L2 Users

"Using a second language is a commonplace activity. There are few places in the world where only one language is used. In London people speak over 300 languages and 32% of the children live in homes where English is not the main language (Baker & Eversley, 2000). In Australia 15.5% of the population speak a language other than English at home, amounting to 200 languages (Australian Government Census, 1996). In the Congo people speak 212 African languages, with French as the official language. In Pakistan they speak 66 languages, chiefly Punjabi, Sindhi, Siraiki, Pashtu and Urdu. . . .

"In a sense L2 users have no more in common than L1 users; the whole diversity of mankind is there. Some of them use the second language as skillfully as a monolingual native speaker, like [Vladimir] Nabokov writing whole novels in a second language; some of them can barely ask for a coffee in a restaurant. The concept of the L2 user is similar to Haugen's minimal definition of bilingualism as 'the point where a speaker can first produce meaningful utterances in the other language' (Haugen, 1953: 7) and to Bloomfield's comment 'To the extent that the learner can communicate, he may be ranked as a foreign speaker of a language' (Bloomfield, 1933: 54). Any use counts, however small or ineffective." (Vivian Cook, Portraits of the L2 User. Multilingual Matters, 2002)

Second Language Acquisition

"Whereas L1 development happens relatively fast, the rate of L2 acquisition is typically protracted, and contrary to the uniformity of L1 across children, one finds a broad range of variation in L2, across individuals and within learners over time. Invariant developmental sequences, on the other hand, have been discovered for L2 as well, but they are not the same as in L1. Most importantly, perhaps, it is obviously not the case that all L2 learners are successful--on the contrary, L2 acquisition typically leads to incomplete grammatical knowledge, even after many years of exposure to the target language. Whether it is in principle possible to acquire native competence in the L2 is a matter of much controversy, but if it should be possible, the 'perfect' learners undoubtedly represent an extremely small fraction of those who begin L2 acquisition . . .." (Jürgen M. Meisel, "Age of Onset in Successive Acquisition of Bilingualism: Effects on Grammatical Development." Language Acquisition Across Linguistic and Cognitive Systems, ed. by Michèle Kail and Maya Hickmann. John Benjamins, 2010)

Second Language Writing

"[In the 1990s] second language writing evolved into an interdisciplinary field of inquiry situated in both composition studies and second language studies simultaneously. . . .

"[J]ust as theories of writing derived only from first language writers 'can at best be extremely tentative and at worst invalid' (Silva, Leki, & Carson, 1997, p. 402), theories of second language writing derived only from one language or one context are also limited. For second language writing instruction to be most effective in various disciplinary and institutional contexts, it needs to reflect the findings of studies conducted in a wide variety of instructional contexts as well as disciplinary perspectives." (Paul Kei Matsuda, "Second Language Writing in the Twentieth Century: A Situated Historical Perspective." Exploring the Dynamics of Second Language Writing, ed. by Barbara Kroll. Cambridge University Press, 2003)

Second Language Reading

"One general implication, in considering the wide range of contexts for L2 reading, is that there is no single 'one size fits all' set of recommendations for reading instruction or curriculum development. L2 reading instruction should be sensitive to the students' needs and goals and to the larger institutional context.

"When L2 students read specific texts in classroom contexts, particularly in academically oriented settings, they will engage in varying types of reading that reflect differing tasks, texts, and instructional objectives. Sometimes students do not fully understand the goals for a given reading text or reading task, and perform poorly. The problem may not be an inability to comprehend but a lack of awareness of the real goal for that reading task (Newman, Griffin, & Cole, 1989; Perfetti, Marron, & Foltz, 1996). Students need to become aware of the goals that they might adopt while reading." (William Grabe, Reading in a Second Language: Moving from Theory to Practice. Cambridge University Press, 2009)

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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Second Language (L2)?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/second-language-1691930. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). What Is a Second Language (L2)? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/second-language-1691930 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Second Language (L2)?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/second-language-1691930 (accessed June 2, 2023).