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According to Wikipedia, "A person's second language or L2, is a language that is not the native language of the speaker..."

After learning English, German and my native language Dutch, I'm learning Spanish. So Spanish is the fourth language I'm learning.

According to the definition on Wikipedia, Spanish is my second language (or one of my second languages). To me, second language sounds like it's the first language you learnt after your native language.

Should I call Spanish my second language/one of my second languages?

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  • There's no reason to rank languages. If you want to be modest, say any language you don't speak natively is your second language. If you want to brag, number them. In most circumstances, however, another language is good enough for anybody. Commented Aug 21, 2016 at 20:54
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    Okay. It seemed strange to me that two things can be the second at the same time.
    – Kevin
    Commented Aug 21, 2016 at 21:01
  • When words become common, they lose precision -- second-class just means 'not first-class', rather than being actually the second on a list ranked by quality. So it can happen. Commented Aug 21, 2016 at 21:04

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Yes, you can call it a second language.

More generally, ordinal numbers in English can be applied to multiple things in various contexts (mainly metaphorical ones), even though it seems unintuitive.

John Lawler gave the example of "second-class" in a comment. Another example is the word "third-party": it's used to imply an alternative to the first two "parties" (people or organizations), but there may be multiple third parties.

It may make more sense if you think of it, not in terms of ranking all of your languages, but only of ranking the language you're talking about relative to some reference set. For languages, the usual reference set is your native language or first language. The language you're talking about is different from your first language, so it is a "second language." The existence of other languages that you speak besides these can be considered irrelevant. Similarly, when talking about a "third party," you're comparing it to the reference set of the two main parties. The existence of other, non-main parties is not taken to be relevant.

This is just one option. If the context makes the existence of these other languages relevant (for example, if you're talking about possible beneficial effects of learning a second language for learning subsequent languages) you could use the terminology "third language."

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  • Thanks. I understand the word 'second' doesn't directly refer to 'language' - in the literal sense - but you can think about the language being from "the second category" (with the native language of someone being from "the first category"). I associated the word 'second' with something that is countable.
    – Kevin
    Commented Aug 21, 2016 at 21:37
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Yes, you are on the verge of becoming polyglot. Well done. However, I believe that your understanding of what it is to speak a "second" (or third or fourth, etc) language shouldn't be just a tally of the number of languages you speak but rather an indication that your second language is the one you are most proficient in after your native or mother tongue. Obviously this doesn't apply to bilingual/trilingual people with equal facility in each language. I do think that tallying up our stock of languages numerically is apt to mislead for it ignores the likelihood that most polyglots posses different levels of proficiency in each language. I am a native English-speaker but refer to French as my "second language" because I am not bilingual and it is second in the sense that I have an alternative to my native language whenever I am in a situation that allows/requires me to switch from English to French and vice versa. I speak a smattering of two other languages but never refer or think of them as my third or fourth languages.

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