First language, mother tongue or L1? Second language or L2? Target language?


Hello Everyone!!!

I was suggested that I should be consistent in using the terms defined below in may paper. I thought I can use them interchangable.

Can anybody tell me if they are well defined? or give me any suggestion of website or online paper where I can find these terms?

FIRST LANGUAGE: this term refers to the language a person learns from birth.

MOTHER TONGUE: One’s first language. It is used for the language that a person learnt at home (usually from his parents)

TARGET LANGUAGE: the language to be learned.

L1: the mother tongue or first language

L2: a term used to refer to both foreign and second language.

FOREIGN LANGUAGE: a language which is not normally used for communication in a particular society. For example: Spanish is a foreign language in the USA or English is a foreign language in Argentina that is to say, non-native speakers who are learning English language in a non-native English speaking environment.

SECOND LANGUAGE: this term is used to refer to a language which is not a mother tongue but which is used for certain communicative functions in a society. It is learned after the first language (L1) or mother tongue. For example: English is a second language in Nigeria or French is a second language in Tahiti. This term refers to non-native speakers who are learning, for example, English language in an English language environment. There are usually programs designed for students learning a certain language as an additional language.

Thanks in advance!!!
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  • Chez

    Senior Member
    English English
    I think the definitions are OK. Maybe your tutors think it's better if you use the same term for each definition every time you use it, for clarity, instead of using different terms for variety?


    Senior Member
    UK English
    I don't think L1 / L2 / Target language are used very much (if at all) outside language teaching, the first time I ever came across those three terms was when I started reading up on the most effective ways of teaching language about a year ago.

    That's just my opinion, I'm fairly confident if I said "target language" within a context to everyone I know, it'd be sort of obvious it was the language that should be concentrated on, as the same is sort of self-explanatory.

    But if I mentioned "L1" or "L2", I don't think any of them would understand if they hadn't ever read about language teaching before.

    First / Second language
    are extremely common, everyone would understand these.
    Mother Tonue is less used I'd say, from my experience anyway, but I'd say it'd be understood by nearly all native English speakers.


    Senior Member
    From an AE perspective, Alxmurphi (once known with awe and reverence as Alex) is absolutely correct. I suggest that you use native language or first language, second language, etc. The other terms are not widely used outside of teaching. "Target language" is used in translation contexts only.
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