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What is the difference between First Language (L1) and Second Language (L2)?

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Typically, developing children acquire the language that is spoken and heard in their homes, making that their first language (or L1). In a home where only English is spoken and heard, English will become the L1. In a home where Spanish and German are spoken and heard equally, a child will develop two L1s--both Spanish and German. A first language (again, for typically developing children) will emerge without any direct instruction. Children will certainly benefit from good modeling and direct conversations, but children have an innate ability to acquire the language they are immersed in. For this first language to develop well, it is important that children be given adequate exposure to things like correct grammar, word order, semantics, a wide vocabulary, and inflections.

Both children and adults have the capacity to also learn a second language (or L2). Unlike the first language, which solidifies during a window until about age 12, the L2 is actively studied and practiced. New information must be rerouted and reprocessed in the brain as L2 learners meld the language patterns they already know with those of the new language. For example, a student who has learned English as an L1 has absorbed a rule that dictates an adjective preceding a noun in typical speech. As they develop an L2 in Spanish, they must rewire this, consciously remembering to place adjectives after nouns instead.

The fundamental difference is in how the language information is solidified. While the L1 takes almost no effort besides immersion in the language, the acquisition of an L2 is very deliberate.

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L1, or first language, is what is referred to the native or indigenous language of the student. It is also referred to as the "natural language", or the "mother tongue". When it comes to language learning and acquisition, the L1 is the language with which the student enters the program and also the language with which the student is most comfortable speaking because of the extensive exposure to it. Therefore, in an ESL setting, the students are expected to revert to their L1 in moments of frustration or in situations of leaning "stress".

L2, or second language, is also known as the "target" language. Any other spoken system learned after the L1, is considered an L2. In the ESL/TESOL field, the L2 is the language that will be acquired through a series of interventions and strategies. The L2 can either be a "second" language or a "foreign" language; there is a difference between ESL and EFL in terms of how the student will use the language after it is learned. There is also EIL (English as an International Language) and there is also English for Specific Purpose learning.

Do not think, however, that L1 and L2 apply only to English; it is often the case that the terminology is used in TEFL settings only because TEFL programs are more extensive and widely-used throughout the world. Realistically, you can apply the terminology of L1 and L2 to any setting that involves learning two different language systems. Some linguists have gone as far as re-labeling the L1/L2 as L1 and FL2 (foreign language 2) but that is not a common nor productive practice.

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