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What Is a Foreign Language?

A street sign in English and Chinese.
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  • Written By: Alan Rankin
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Image By: Guillaume Baviere
  • Last Modified Date: 11 April 2014
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A foreign language is any language that is not native to a particular region or person. Obviously, this definition varies from region to region and by the individuals within a particular region. Many countries have more than one official language or contain significant populations that speak their own languages. Foreign language instruction is often required or strongly encouraged in primary and secondary education; there are also numerous methods of adult language instruction. Many people are bilingual or multilingual, that is, fluent in two or more languages; this is an asset in many professions.

There are more than 6,000 languages in use around the globe. This does not count ancient languages that are still studied for scholarly purposes, such as Latin and Sanskrit. In many areas, residents learn a regional language as well as a national one, for example, Welsh or Irish in addition to English. This practice is sometimes controversial to those who associate a language with a dominant culture. Historically, some languages, particularly those of indigenous or immigrant cultures, have been discouraged or even outlawed.

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The connection of language with culture is not insignificant. Studying a foreign language is key to understanding and communicating with the people of a foreign culture. Schools around the world encourage students to study at least one foreign language, and doing so is a requirement for many colleges and universities. There is evidence that people learn languages more readily as children than they can in later life. Teaching foreign languages to children also enhances problem-solving skills that they can use in other situations.

Foreign language instruction for adults includes books, audio programs, and websites. Some of these are very basic, designed for tourists who need only enough language to get by during a brief visit to a foreign country. Advanced courses include intensive lessons in a classroom setting, designed to provide fluency to people who are relocating to a new country for personal or professional reasons. Multilingual skills can greatly enhance a person’s professional standing, especially in occupations involving international travel or communication. Some people travel to foreign countries specifically to gain employment teaching their own language to others.

Language professionals recommend a daily course of study to learn a foreign language. It is important to understand the grammar and customs of the language as well as its individual words. Visiting the country where the language is spoken can be highly beneficial to this process. Immersion in the language, by using it regularly, aids learning in ways that other instruction methods cannot create. It is easier to learn a language that is related to the speaker’s first language, such as French or Spanish in the case of English, than one with an entirely different alphabet and grammar, such as Chinese.

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