What Is Target Language?

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  • Written By: Esther Ejim
  • Edited By: Kaci Lane Hindman
  • Last Modified Date: 07 April 2020
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A target language can either be a language that a non-native speaker is striving to learn or a language that a translator is striving to translate into another language. In the first instance, the non-native speaker may be trying to learn a majority language in which his or her language is the minority language, or the motive may be for other purposes. In some instances, a person's native language may be lost or replaced with the target language. This often happens when the person speaking the target language moves to another country at a very young age.

The native language can also be called the mother tongue or the first language, while the target language may also be referred to as an auxiliary language. The first language of any individual is the first language that the person learns from childhood and the language that such a person is most comfortable speaking. For instance, a Spanish person in an English-speaking country may learn the English language; however, such a person may be most comfortable speaking Spanish since that is the language of his or her childhood.


An individual may forget the native language of his or her birth and early childhood in favor of the new language through a process known as language attrition. In this sense, the native language may be replaced by the target language since the individual has attained native-like proficiency in the target language to the detriment of the native language. Some people find it hard to achieve the kind of proficiency in their target language as manifested by the native speakers when they learn the language as adults. This may be observed in the form of errors in intonation, fluency and the misplacement of emphasis during pronunciation.

In the case of translation, the native language or the language from which a translation is to be made is known as the source language. The language to which the translation is to be made is the target language. Translating a language from its source to a target can be a little tricky due to the propensity to carry over some personal interpretation or personal idiosyncrasies that may not be generally acceptable. For instance, a person translating a proverb from a source language to a target language may translate the proverb in a manner in which he or she understands it, not necessarily the faithful translation. The ability to maintain faithfulness in translation is known as transparency or faithfulness.


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Post 4

@everetra - That’s an interesting observation. I did some teaching of ESL and I always made it a point to shun things like idioms when trying to teach English to the students.

It was very difficult to understand some of the proverbs and figures of speech in the English language. The fact is that these things simply don’t translate very well.

Post 3

@David09 - For four years I lived in Asia, and I learned to speak Indonesian. The transition from English to Indonesian was very easy, to my surprise.

I found that the Indonesian language didn’t have verb conjugation the way that the English language did, so it was simpler to understand. Indonesians trying to learn English had a tougher time at it, however.

I did notice that this simplicity made for more verbose Indonesian translations of English books. Since English had so many verb conjugations, the Indonesian translations were wordier in order to communicate the same sense of what the English books were trying to say. Such translated books were often double the size of their English counterparts.

Post 2

@Mammmood - I had a similar experience too. So when I entered college I decided I would try to learn my lost native language again. I tried to take a FOLA course in that target language.

Initially, the school didn’t want to let me do that, because those courses were not open to “native speakers.” However, I told them that I no longer spoke that language.

Reluctantly they let me take the course and they even let me use it to meet my foreign language requirement in college.

Post 1

I’m afraid I am one of those people who has lost use of their native language as a result of acquiring a target language. More specifically, I lost my Arabic in the process of learning English.

I am from the Middle East and used to speak Arabic fluently at the tender age of two or three. It was then that my family moved to the United States.

I was still speaking Arabic until I entered school and I had a tough time understanding my teacher. Other students were making fun of me and giving me weird looks.

Well, there never was a more motivated young lad striving to learn the English language from then on out. I did it so well that I ended up majoring in English in college! I think I took things to an extreme, but I don’t regret learning English. I only regret forgetting Arabic.

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