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A second language is a language learned after the first language or mother tongue, which is commonly spoken where the learner lives. The term is to be distinguished from foreign language, which is a language learned in an area where that language is not generally spoken.

However, this distinction is not universally accepted. Linguist Eric Lenneberg uses second language in his critical period hypothesis to mean a language consciously learned or used by its speaker after puberty. In most cases, people never achieve the same level of fluency and comprehension in their second languages as in their first language.

Historically in Europe, the most widely used second language or lingua franca was the Latin language. It was used by the Catholic Church; by the law as it still is today; in medicine; in biology for horticulture and scientific classification of species.

Latin was used so much across Europe that it was called the vulgar or common tongue; this is why the Latin version of the Bible is called the Vulgate.

Presently, English is the world's most widespread second language; it is used in areas as diverse as the internet, television and radio, and international aviation.

The success of English throughout the world stems from two major causes: the far reaching influence of the British Empire, and the present dominance of the United States in the fields of business and entertainment.

French was for a time the lingua franca in Europe. Following the Norman Conquest, the royal courts of both England and France were ruled by French speakers — in England, English was considered "the peasants' language". Afterwards, as was the case with English, the French empire spread its language through colonization and French became, for a time, one of the world's most widely spoken languages. Today, its share of speakers globally has declined but it remains an important diplomatic language.

Esperanto, designed as a neutral lingua franca for worldwide use, has been taught and learned for over a century, to such an extent that a flourishing oral and written culture is associated with the language. It was nearly the official lingua franca of the League of Nations, with one vote short of the required unanimous quorum, and there is an active movement to use it as the official lingua franca of the European Union.

See also

de:Zweitsprache es:Segunda lengua

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