It is quite possible that the first language a person learns may no longer be their dominant language, that is, the one he or she uses most or the one with which he or she is most comfortable in. For example, the Canadian census defines first language for its purposes as "the first language learned in childhood and still spoken", recognizing that for some, the earliest language may be lost, a process known as language attrition. This can happen when young children move, with or without their family (because of immigration or international adoption), to a new language environment.
In acquiring an L2, Hyltenstam (1992) found that around the age of 6 and 7 seemed to be a cut-off point for bilinguals to achieve native-like proficiency. After that age, L2 learners could get near-native-like-ness but their language would, while consisting of very few actual errors, have enough errors that would set them apart from the L1 group. The inability of some of the subjects to achieve native-like proficiency must be seen in relation to the age of onset (AO). “The age of 6 or 8 does seem to be an important period in distinguishing between near-native and native-like ultimate attainment... More specifically, it may be suggested that AO interacts with frequency and intensity of language use” (Hyltenstam, 1992, p. 364).
Later, Hyltenstam & Abrahamsson (2003) modified their age cut-offs to argue that after childhood, in general, it becomes more and more difficult to acquire native-like-ness, but that there is no cut-off point in particular. Furthermore, they discuss a number of cases where a native-like L2 was acquired during adulthood.
|speed||NA||acquisition is rapid|
|stages||systematic stages of development||systematic stages of development|
|error correction||not directly influential||not involved|
|depth of knowledge||beyond the level of input||beyond the level of input|
|success (1)||not inevitable (possible fossilization*)||inevitable|
|success (2)||rarely fully successful||successful|
The distinction between acquiring and learning was made by Stephen Krashen (1982) as part of his Monitor Theory. According to Krashen, the acquisition of a language is a natural process; whereas learning a language is a conscious one. In the former, the student needs to partake in natural communicative situations. In the latter, error correction is present, as is the study of grammatical rules isolated from natural language. Not all educators in second language agree to this distinction; however, the study of how a second language is learned/acquired is referred to as Second Language Acquisition or SLA.
Research in SLA focuses on the developing knowledge and use of a language by children and adults who already know at least one other language... [and] a knowledge of second language acquisition may help educational policy makers set more realistic goals for programmes for both foreign language courses and the learning of the majority language by minority language children and adults (Spada & Lightbown, p. 115).
SLA has been influenced by both linguistic and psychological theories. One of the dominant linguistic theories hypothesizes that a device or module of sorts in the brain contains innate knowledge. Many psychological theories, on the other hand, hypothesize that cognitive mechanisms, responsible for much of human learning, process language.
In pedagogy, a distinction is often made between 'second language' and foreign language, the latter being learned for use in an area where that language is not generally spoken. Arguably, English in countries such as India, the Scandinavian countries, and the Netherlands can be considered a second language for many of its speakers, because they learn it young, speak it fluently, and use it regularly.
The same can be said for French in the Arab Maghreb Union, except for Libya, although--like for English in the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands--French is not an official language in any of these Arab countries. The same can also be said for the rest of sub-Saharan Francophone Africa, except that, in all Francophone sub-Saharan African countries other than Mauritania, French is an official language. In the post-Soviet states states such as Ukraine, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazahstan, Russian can be considered a second language, and there are large Russophone communities there.
In China, however, English would be considered a foreign language due to the lack of a number of characteristics, such as historical links, media, opportunities for use, similar vocabulary, and common script. Although Egypt, like most of the other Arab Persian Gulf states, were once British colonies, English, like in China, is a foreign language in Egypt (see Education in Egypt).
French would be considered a foreign language in Romania, Lebanon and Moldova as well. This is despite Romanian and French being romance languages (unlike Chinese and English, which come from two different language families). This is also despite Romania and Moldova being the only two countries in the world where Romanian is an official language at the federal level, Romania's historical links to France, and both Roumanophone countries' membership in the Francophonie. For Lebanon, French would be considered a foreign language, even though most of its universities operate in either that language or English, French is an administrative language and--like Romania--Lebanon has historical ties to France and is a Francophonie member state.