Difference between a First Language & a Second Language

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Difference between a First Language & a Second Language

Language is the most significant aspect which makes us different from all other species. Accordingly, language acquisition is the most impressive aspect of human development both in psychological and cognitive perspective. However, all the normal human beings acquire the language they first encounter as children. Then they might learn multiple languages but those languages will always be different from the first language they acquired by being exposed to. So, it is evident that there are a lot of differences between the first language and the second language of a person.

Let’s explore the differences:

  • A first language is the mother tongue or native language of a person while a second language is a language a person learns in order to communicate with the native speaker of that language.
  • The first language is like an instinct which is triggered by birth and developed with the experience of being exposed to it. A second language is a personal choice of a person.
  • There is no other alternative to a first language. A person cannot decide his/her first language. It comes to him/her as an inheritance/legacy/birthright. On the other hand, a second language is always fixed by the person. There are many alternatives to a second language. A person/community can choose a second language among other languages.
  • The acquiring process of the first language is very rapid while the learning process of the second language can vary from language to language and from person to person, but can never be as rapid as the first language acquisition.
  • The first language is ‘acquired’ and the second language is ‘learned’. The difference between these two words describes the qualities of the two languages. ‘Acquire’ means “to come into possession or ownership of” which indicates that the first language is like a dynamic and abstract property which comes into possession of a person. On the other hand, ‘learn’ means “to gain knowledge or skill by study, instruction, or experience” which indicates that there is nothing passive in second language learning.
  • A first language is completely acquired with 100% proficiency within 6 years from the birth. However, a second language can never be learned as efficiently as a first language; though good competence can be achieved in the second language, the process is slow.
  • The first language acquisition is always natural and there is no need for instruction in acquiring it. But a second language learning is not natural and it needs continuous guidance and instruction.
  • The first language acquisition begins with telegraphic speech. The term 'telegraphic speech' deriving from the word ‘telegram’ was coined by Roger Brown, an American psycholinguist, in 1963. It refers to the two-word a child can utter when s/he is 18 to 24 months of age. Examples of telegraphic speech: Mom see, Dad go, No ball, Daddy walk, Mommy milk, etc. On the other hand, the second language acquisition begins with a full sentence. A child cannot start learning the second language without being fully efficient in the first language.
  • The first language is a natural part of a person’s everyday life. But the second language is a new aspect of the person’s life if s/he chooses it to be.
  • The first language does not require any conscious effort; the acquisition process of the first language is subconscious. The second language requires constant conscious effort so that the learners can internalize the structures of the second language.

Some factors of difference for the first language and the second language.


It is the most important factor that makes a second language totally different from the first language. Children of the age of 6 who have already acquired full proficiency in their first language are most capable of learning a second language. Adults usually find it difficult to learn a new language when they become too accustomed to their first/native language.


A child’s personality does not usually make that much of difference in the acquisition of the first language. But it makes a huge difference in the learning process of the second language. In the second language learning process, the learners with an introvert personality usually make slow progress than the learners with an extrovert personality.


The first language is one of the most important factors of a person’s culture. But a second language is not that important in anyone’s culture. However, the second language has some effects on the culture of a person but not significant enough to be counted as an element of that culture.


It is an important factor for the second language learning. A learner with good motivation to learn a second language is likely to learn that language faster. But the acquisition of the first language does not require any motivation because it is a natural phenomenon. The first language is acquired subconsciously and there is no need for motivation to acquire it.

Mother Tongue:

The first language is the mother tongue of a person. The second language learning depends a lot on the structures of the first language. If the structure of the first language is similar to the second language, it will be easy and fast for the learners to internalize it. For instance, an English native speaker will find Dutch easier to learn than Hindi as a second language.

A first language and a second language both have their effects on each other. However, as we have learned that the first language is natural and has a solid base in a person’s intellectual and psychological development, the first language is not affected by the second language as much as the second language is affected by the first language. Finally, we can say that the relationship and the differences between a first and a second language are complex but constant.    

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