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The Differences Between Learning Your First Language vs. A Second One

The Differences Between Learning Your First Language vs. A Second One | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Learning a second language can feel like stepping into a whole new world compared to the way you learned your first language. When you learn your first language, you take in that language in a very natural and organic way compared to the way you might obtain your second language. The first language you learn is what you hear from infancy as you grow up, as it’s the language you hear at home, on tv, at school and etc. And your second language will mostly be something you are taught in classroom which is not the same type of experience that you get from learning in your actual living environment.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Mandrell C.

Extra knowledge

When you grow up using your native tongue you are not just in taking the right way to structure a sentence or proper vocabulary, you are taking in so much more. With your native language you also are learning slang/lingo, contextual things such as humor, sarcasm, proper manners when addressing someone, culture and so much much. All these things came to you in an organic way so they tend to be things you don’t think about because they are things you just know, and it may not cross your mind that all this could be different within a second language.

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Differences in concepts

Now let’s talk about learning your second language in contrast to your native one. You’ll probably find vocabulary easy to pick up on, but once you get more in-depth with the learning, you may find some things within the second language to be difficult that are stuff you never thought about when learning your first tongue in a natural environment. Let’s just say English is your primary language, some languages have different sentence structures than English and you may end up saying grammatically incorrect things in your new language because while you have the vocabulary, your grammar is still being processed with the structure of English. This can make for a challenge when speaking, but that’s part of the fun and journey. You are learning that with the different grammar, it makes it so the 2 languages can have a sentence that means the same thing, but if you were to do a direct word to word translation the sentence may sound odd in English. An example I can give is “Tengo hambre” means I’m hungry in Spanish, but if you directly translate those words directly into English it would come out as “I have hungry” which we could understand, but it's not correct for our grammar. This is just the tip of the iceberg how different it is when learning a language and that it is important you understand how they speak and not always think from the way you speak.

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Cultural differences

Another thing you are absorbing and stepping into when picking up a language is the culture. And by culture, I mean the mannerisms in how the language should be spoken, what’s considered polite or rude, how to address people and so forth. Sometimes the cultural things you pick up when taking on a second language even expand beyond the language itself, as it’s just things you can’t avoid. In this case, it almost feels like your new language is a conduit to a new world which is very exciting. Again you don’t get this rush of excitement with your first language because that’s just your natural environment as opposed to say learning Mandarin and getting that Chinese history and cultural knowledge along with it. So in simple terms when picking up a language, you are also getting more knowledge that transcends speaking, reading, and etc.

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Differences in acquisition

Now to review the differences of first vs the second language, the initial point is that that you’re the first language isn’t particularly “taught” to you, you just learn it, while the second language is something you are sat down and taught. These two different ways of absorbing languages give 2 very unique experiences. Along with these differences, become aware that when learning your new tongue, that it’s important to think in that tongue when speaking, and not try to do your own rough translations coming from your first language. That can make what you’re saying inaccurate even if the point is still clear. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever attempt at speaking or writing unless you know you’re 100% correct, but just something to keep in mind. Lastly, your new language brings on a lot more than just words, you learn about a group, their society, their culture, and sometimes even their history. All these points alone stress the difference is between meeting your first tongue vs your second one. Thank you for reading!

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