What Is a Foreign Language?

Alan Rankin

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.

A street sign in English and Chinese.
A street sign in English and Chinese.

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.

Learning a foreign language typically requires daily study.
Learning a foreign language typically requires daily study.

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.

In many regions, school children learn a foreign language as part of the school curriculum.
In many regions, school children learn a foreign language as part of the school curriculum.

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.

There are many books that can give adults instructions on learning a foreign language.
There are many books that can give adults instructions on learning a foreign language.

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Discussion Comments


@pastanaga - I am a big fan of language as an essential part of a living culture, but I actually just don't think it's possible for a foreigner to ever truly learn a language, especially if they start learning as an adult.

They might speak a foreign language, but they'll never be able to assimilate all the little contextual cues that people naturally pick up as toddlers and throughout their lifetime of immersion.


@pleonasm - That is one of the reasons learning a language is so valuable for students. But it's also true that you learn a lot about culture in general. You simply cannot see your own culture, and your own biases and strengths, without having a basis of comparison. And nobody can truly understand a culture without understanding the language first.

I think people who have never studied a language, or linguistics in general, can't understand that it's more than just memorizing lists of words. Foreign language instruction can completely change your ability to relate to people and your understanding of the world in general.


I remember when I was a kid just entering high school, we were given several optional subjects, including languages like Japanese and French. I was determined to study French, because it seemed like the most romantic choice to me. My father couldn't understand why I wanted to study a foreign language in the first place and why I didn't at least choose one like Japanese, which, at the time, was considered a very practical choice.

At the time I was doing it almost because it seemed like there was no practical value in learning a language. It was purely for the fun of it (not that it turned out to be as much fun as I imagined). But now I think I learned more about English from my French classes than I did from my English classes. There were so many things I took for granted until I had to learn them a second time, in a different way.

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