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There are a number of terms and abbreviations used in the field of teaching languages other than English. As far as the teaching of French is concerned, in Anglophone countries, some Americans (in New York) talk of LOTE (Languages Other Than English), some of WL (World Language(s)), most that I have found use FL (Foreign Language). The term Languages is also used on its own, for example by New Zealand high schools. Australians and New Zealanders seem to use ML (Modern Languages) at the university level, but at high school level, Australians frequently use LOTE. In NZ literature I have also seen IL, for International Languages.

The British now use MFL (Modern Foreign Languages). We used to say Modern Languages (ML), but some years ago it was thought necessary to distinguish the likes of French and German from community languages such as Hindi or Chinese. Interestingly, in the British university sector, where the distinction with community languages is less relevant, the term Modern Languages is still used.

The university of South Africa has a course in Modern European Languages and distinguishes them from World Languages. At high school level, where Afrikaans is a major "home language" the term "additional language" is sometimes used.

Meanwhile Canadian universitites also refer to Modern Languages while the terms Foreign Language, Modern Languages or just plain Languages can be found in high schools.

So, is any term superior to the others?

Nomenclature can clearly depend on the particular political concerns of countries. In South Africa the dictinction between home language and other languages is important. In the UK, the distinction between community languages and other languages is significant. This goes some way in explaining the variation in terminology and there is no compelling reason why everyone in the world should use the same term.

According to Wikipedia, "a world language is a language spoken internationally which is learned by many people as a second language". This definition is a handy, very broad definition and one which excludes ancient languages. It is matched closely by the term LOTE, therefore, in definition. LOTE could theoretically include classical languages. To me, however, adding the word "world" seems superfluous.

The term "additonal language" (AL) is a handy one, and shorter than LOTE. It makes the distinction with one's native language clear, but it could refer to a bilingual's own second language.

The term "second language" (L2), widely used in applied linguistics, is problematic since for many learners the extra language learned at school may be a third language.

To me, the term modern languages implicitly gives too much importance to Latin and Greek, which, whatever their merits, are learned these days by relatively few students. It is a term which may have been thought useful when there was potentially confusion between classical and modern languages. Latin and Greek can be conveniently referred to as Classics, leaving the term languages available for French, Spanish and so on..

In Britain "foreign languages" is no doubt seen as politically incorrect because of the ambiguous meaning of the word "foreign". We frown these days at the term foreigner, just as the British frown at the term "handicapped" (although the French do not mind handicapé - different countries, different euphemisms). In addition, there is an issue in referring to community languages as "foreign". In a sense they are, but to speakers of community langauges the term might be offensive.

The French have their generally accepted term langue vivante (LV) ("living language", an equivalent to modern language), whilst the Germans use Fremdsprache (foreign language). Wordreference informs me that the Spanish use lenguas vivas/modernas and the Italians lingue moderne. Are they less bothered about political niceties??

The term "modern foreign languages" (MFL) seems a bit too fussy to me, although, as I mentioned earlier, it is quite precise what it means in a British context.

It's not easy to come down in  favour of any of these terms and I am tempted to conclude that the term "languages" is perfectly adequate since we generally know what this means.

So I'd go with L!


  1. Hi Steve!
    At my school we say Languages as opposed to English and Thai. Then L1 stands for home language and L2 for 2nd language other than English. Really it depends on the school context. François Stalder, Head of Languages,

  2. The IB term is "language B" to allow for students to have more than one language already. It is (mildly) problematic to have so many different terms - for Twitter I have learned to use the hashtag MFL to find relevant chat. I dislike the term "language" to mean 1st language skills - but teachers of L1 / Language A / English probably have similar conversations about what terminology should be used :)
    MFL is probably less relevant outside of Australia and the UK where the linguistic environment is richer... but why not include community languages? And why differentiate between modern languages and classical? I'll quite happily go with L with you!

  3. Thanks for commenting.

    On Twitter I find that MFLtwitterati generates the most contacts. My impression is that British language teachers are the busiest on Twitter, but that may be down to numbers, with The UK having a larger population than Australia, NZ and Canada.

  4. At the Eurolingua Institute SA, we tend just to talk about 'languages' as we teach Arabic, Catalan, Chinese, Dutch, English, Farsi, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, in the countries where the language is spoken nationally.


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