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1st Language v 2nd Language First language, sometime referred to as
First language, sometime referred to as `Mother tongue´ or `Native language´ is generally our earliest and most natural language learning. It commonly means the first spoken language which we naturally acquire through the influence of our parents, and the enviroment which we grow up in during our most formative years. Second language, is usually an acquired or learned language ability which most people first experience, through secondary or further education. The difference this highlights is that your `natural´ or first language tends to be absorbed sub-conciously, whereas additional language learning becomes a studying process at a conscious level. It is unlikely for anyone to become as natural with a second or even third language as they are with their first language, by means of learning alone. Certain aspects need to be asborbed for true fluency.
I would like to detail my own additional language experiences as a case in point. My first experience of a second language was when I began French lessons at secondary school. It was compulsory for the first two years and I enjoyed it and was reasonably proficient. It was taught solely on a grammar, vocabulary memorising basis and so I had no exposure to natural spoken French. As a result, I can still remember a lot of written or individual phrases thirty years later, but if someone spoke to me in French, I would be totally lost. My next exposure to language was when I met and married my wife Panayiota. She is Greek Cypriot and arrived in England in 1977, at the age of 14 years old with no English whatsoever. She missed her schooling through the war in Cyprus. However, she did have her final two years of secondary education in England. By the time we met in 1982, she was totally fluent in speaking English but had a few problems with writing and spelling. In her own words she would describe herself as `pretty dumb´ and certainly not a linguistic genius. So how could she achieve this, when after almost the same equivalent time of formal teaching, I could not really speak French. Obviously, living on a day to day basis with another language is a major factor but the point I feel is most important is necessity. She did it because she had to, and at some sub-conscious level, she was aware of this, and so she was able to absorb the language the same way a very young child could. Below are listed the details and abilities of the rest of Panayiota´s family and it is interesting how their language abilities emerge even though they all arrived at the same time.
Yiannis Paphitis - Father - Worked since he arrived in the family restaurant dealing with the public. Language ability - poor, speaks only Greek, except for food items and football teams.
Katelou Paphitis - Mother - Mostly stayed at home though later helped in the business. Language ability - almost nil, speaks only Greek.
Nicos Paphitis - Brother 2 years older - He was too old for school on arrival so worked full-time in the restaurant as a waiter. Language ability - totally fluent verbally, written English a little weak. Has a slight accent.
Andreas Paphitis - Brother 2 years younger - Had full secondary education in England. Language ability - speaks and writes fluently. Has no discernible accent.
Katina Paphitis - Sister 5 years younger - Had some primary and full secondary education in England. Language ability - totally fluent in both written and spoken English. Has an English accent.
Mihales Paphitis - Brother 8 years younger - Had full primary and secondary education in England. Language ability - totally fluent in both written and spoken English. Has an English accent.
At home only Greek was spoken between the parents, and the parents to children. So their learning came from the need to adapt to their new enviroment. Why didn´t this enviroment have the same effect on their parents' Socially, they didn´t have to acquire the language. The children on the other hand were forced for social and practical reasons to acquire language quickly and this they all did sucessfully. The affect this has had on me, is that after many years of living and working together, I can speak and understand Greek, mostly colloquially. But I can not read or write it as I have never been taught any formal language.
As for my three daughters, they the grew up with English and Greek spoken in their home enviroment, had full education in England plus attended Greek school for two hours every week from the age of 5. They have had the perfect possible enviroment for 2nd language acquisition, but they will not speak a word of Greek, even to their grandparents.
In conclusion, there are a multitude of variables when trying to learn a second language. Even when there is a perfect enviroment for natural acquisition, necessity plays a major part. When there is only formal learning, the basic grounding is satisfactory but there is no natural exposure and if you have only natural exposure without supporting lessons then other aspects of language are lacking. In order to acquire a second language to compete with your `Mother tongue´ you need the correct enviroment, the proper learning structure, natural exposure and a need to do so really helps.