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The American Heritage Dictionary gives three definitions of target language:,

  • 1) The language into which a text written in another language is to be translated.
  • 2) A language that a nonnative speaker is in the process of learning.
  • 3) Computers The computer language, often a machine language, into which a document written in another computer language is to be translated.

  • In all senses also called object language.

Dictionary.com gives two definitions and compares it with source language:

  • 1) the language into which a text is to be translated from another language. Compare source language
  • 2) a language, especially a foreign language, that one is in the process of learning. Compare source language.

According to Ngrm the expression "target language" is from the '50s.

Questions:

  1. Is "target language" a colloquial or a formal/technical expression?
    For instance, could a foreign student say that English is their target language meaning that they are studying English as a foreign language?

  2. In which context is the expression most commonly used today?

  3. When and in what context was the expression originally used?
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    Did you check some usages in Google books and see how the term is used? – Alan Carmack Oct 10 '16 at 3:58
  • @Alan Carmack - yes but is still not clear to me. – user5267 Oct 10 '16 at 4:23
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Based on the above dictionary definitions, it seems it is valid to say "English is my target language." However, I do not believe that this expression is in common use and it does not sound entirely "correct" to my ears.

If I heard someone say "English is my target language" with no context, I would not immediately jump to the conclusion that he was learning English as a second language. I'd have to ask for clarification.

In my mind, the word target does not go well with language. When target is used as a modifier, it implies that an action is directed toward or at that object.

For example, the target audience is the audience that you are directing the action of talking (most likely but it could be other actions like selling) to. The target voter block is the set of people you are trying to appeal to. The target school is the school you are directing the action of "trying to get accepted" at. (I was actually having trouble coming up with nouns that "target" could modify).

When target is used to modify language, it almost sounds like you are trying to direct an action at "language". But "learning" which is the action that would be understood to be directed doesn't really have that feel in English. English considers "learning" to be more of a passive action.

Just a disclaimer, and anyone please comment if you know better, but this is entirely speculation made up on the spot by me.

That being said, I know that "English is my target language" is not a good way to say that you are learning English.

With regard to your other question, I do not believe "target language" is a common expression used in English at all (Regardless of formality).

  • All you say is fine and sensible, but "target language" appears to be a set phrase present in all dictionaries. I guess it means that it is "widely" used somewhere, somehow. – user5267 Oct 10 '16 at 13:00
  • Perhaps it is widely used somewhere; maybe in a specific field. I'm not familiar with an applicable field but cannot say one does not exist. However, if you say this expression to a native English speaker, he will be uncertain what you mean and will have to use context or ask for clarification. – G-Cam Oct 10 '16 at 13:08
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There's no doubt about the restricted application of the collocation "target language", which together with "source language" is marked as a technical term. The examples from the books Ngrm provides prove this:

The second question is which variety of English should be the target language of learners in ELT classes. Most textbooks assume that the target language is one of the major standardized varieties, usually American or British English.

(Source)

First and foremost, make sure that you are consistently using the target language if you would like your students to speak it.

(Source)

These words or components can belong to the target language or to another language in the mind.

(Source)

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