FL vs. SL: What’s the deal with acronyms?

When one first enters the land of Polyglottia, and particularly if they venture into the forest of Linguistic Lollipops, one tends to find themselves confronted with a lot of acronyms and jargon that are unfamiliar.  Google helps with definitions but these are often lacking in terms of the connotations or extraneous uses of the words in these particular fields.  So it’s our job as long-term Polyglots and Linguists to help newbies learn these new terms.

I’m going to start with a favorite of mine.  I hear people using the terms FL or Foreign Language Education interchangeably with SL or Second Language education on a regular basis.  I completely understand why- on the surface, they appear synonymous.  But as a certified teacher of both forms, I can tell you they most certainly are not.  The difference is all in the environment.

FL (Foreign Language) Education:  This is the type most of us are familiar with.  Foreign Language Education is provided in a location where the target language isn’t a primary language in the area.  For example, when U.S. students take French, Spanish, German, Japanese, or any other language course in high school, this is foreign language education.  The environment does not provide ample opportunities to practice the target language.

SL (Second Language) Education: This is the type of language instruction most immigrant students receive (though not always well).  This is instruction in the majority language of an area (the primary or prestige language), which is used outside of the classroom walls.  Students are getting instruction to help increase the speed at which they learn the language, as well as to assist with grammatical issues.  Students are surrounded by the language in many areas outside of the classroom.  Study abroad situations also provide this to a degree.

Why is it important to understand the difference?

(Forgive me my bad punnery… I get it from my father.)

Well for one, each requires different things from instructors.

FL instruction generally requires some attention to motivation.  Even when a language is likely to help a student with career advancement or other future endeavors, this carrot at the end of a very long stick is seldom sufficient to keep kids learning.  Some will have an intrinsic love of languages and therefore not need their motivation supplemented.  But many will need incentive.  FL language classes require a bit of “edutainment”; that is, striving to make lessons (at least sometimes) fun and innovative.  Games are a big part of a good FL class.  FLclasses also benefit from limited (note: limited, not eliminated) use of the native language.  This is because the FL classroom is the only guaranteed exposure the students have to the language.  It’s also good for an instructor to compile resources (or have their students help compile them) to outside activities where the student CAN practice the language.  This could be youtube channels, ePal websites for e-mail pen pals, conversation clubs, and more.  FL instructors have the tough job of creating a mini world for their target language to exist in, and creating enough incentive for students to want to visit it.

SL instructors have a very different task.  They are helping their student navigate a strange language and often a strange culture.  For this reason, they often don’t have a perfectly set curriculum.  The students’ needs guide instruction far more than any textbook.  In my humble opinion, L1 use should not only exist in the SL classroom, it should be ENCOURAGED as needed.  Now, that doesn’t mean every SL instructor speaks all of their students’ languages.  If you are an ESL teacher in New York City, this is highly unlikely.  But the use of L1 materials can help speed up student learning, decrease stress thus allowing the brain to more rapidly access the L2, and increase students’ general content knowledge, which is key in typical schooling.  (I’m getting on a soapbox here, but it is downright criminal to metaphorically tie a student’s hand behind their back by forbidding use of their native tongue in a second language class.  Students are only being harmed by this process.)  Students have plentiful access to the second language outside of their classroom.  Motivation is seldom an issue- accomplishing daily tasks is generally motivation enough.  In addition, if the classroom is a safe haven for a student, they will be even more motivated to accept the new language and use it more frequently having had opportunities to practice with the teacher.

As a learner, here is what you need to know.  If you are in an FL environment and want to make the most of your language learning, you are going to have make the most of it.  My suggestions are:

  • Try to confine yourself to the L2 as much as possible in this environment, even if your peers aren’t.  If you have a grammar question or such and must ask it in the L1, do so.  But try to speak and write in your L2 as much as possible while there.
  • Seek outside opportunities.  Language clubs are becoming more popular and if your school/university doesn’t have one, there are probably people who would help you start one.  Even setting up a simple conversation hour once a month with a few like-minded friends can help.  I try to set up ASL coffees with friends and Japanese phone calls with a fellow learner once a month.
  • Find outside resources.  Movies are being dubbed in more languages than ever.  Youtube is full of music videos from around the world.  Palabea, LiveMocha, DuoLingo, and more can help you meet people to practice with and provide additional guides to learn from.
  • Set short-term and long-term goals.  Give yourself daily (or at least weekly) reasons to practice.  “I want to understand this anime” or “I want to write a silly note to my friends that my teacher can’t read” are great short-term goals.  (As a teacher, I should strongly discourage you from passing notes in class.  Yet I can’t help but smile as I remember writing notes in Braille to my friends hehe.) Long-term goals might be to take a trip to the country that speaks your language or make a Skype friend with someone from there.  Remember : “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.“ – Zig Ziglar


If you are an SL learner, whether by choice or circumstance, keep these ideas in mind:

  • Breathe.  NO ONE learns a language in a day.  Infants take 5 years to reach true fluency, and 8 years to speak “correctly” even in their native tongue.  It is okay that you feel overwhelmed, just don’t let it drown you.  Keep showing up and keep opening yourself to the new language around you.
  • Ask questions.  Most SL teachers are very student-driven.  They want to help you with the problems you are facing.  If a word boggles you or an expression seems odd, try to write it down and ask about it.
  • Practice with your friends.  As tempting as it is to always slip back into your L1 when with friends who speak it, try to allow some time to practice together.  Because you are all learning, you are less likely to make each other nervous and more likely to offer corrections with kindness.  You also may be able to offer quality explanations to each other as you know the specific differences between your native language and the target language.
  • Seek out language partners.  If you fear trying your new language out, see if there is any way to get connected with someone interested in learning your L1.  There usually are people interested, often those taking FL classes in the same school/university.  This levels the playing field for practice and generally, these people are much more understanding of language difficulties.  They know from experience it can be tough.
  • Spend a lot of time listening.  If speaking scares you, find environments where you can LISTEN to a lot of language.  Hang out in a coffee shop, go to a show, be around people without actually being part of the group.  Yes, it’s eavesdropping but let’s be honest, most of the stuff you’ll overhear is pretty mundane.  But it’s a lot of input and a good chance to get your ears comfortable with the language.
  • Start with routine tasks.  Buy a coffee from the same place every day.  Listen to others give their order and strive to perfect your exchange.  Ask directions from different people (even when you know where to go).   Make routine small talk with a neighbor.  These routines let you work on scripted language phrases that are useful in many situations.  They also become less stressful the more you do them.
  • Trust in the good in people.  This is a hard one.  I know it is.  Few of us LIKE to look like an idiot and many of us have experience at least one frustrated person with our language ignorance when we are first learning.  All I can say though is this: MOST people are kind and MOST people do want you to accomplish your task.  That cashier may look irritated, but she does want you to buy that soda.  (And she may not be irritated at you- minimum wage and on your feet all day is no picnic.)  If you are making an honest effort, trust that most people will make an honest effort to understand you.  And for those who don’t?


To hell with them, because well, they’re punks.   (I’d use foul language here, but some of my high school students have started reading this so I’m trying to keep it clean.)

Whatever your language environment, it IS up to you to make the most of it.  Embrace your situation and make it work for you.  Until next time… Polyglot Out!


Original Article Posting can be found here.  Originally posted 05/06/14.

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