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While reading a passage about language acquisition, I saw two articles in front of a single noun, and I'm a bit confused. Does it mean "to the first language" or something else, could you please explain this kind of usage in German?

Basierend auf dem nativistischen Ansatz geht die Identitätshypothese davon aus, dass der Erwerb der Zweitsprache im Prinzip dem der Erstsprache gleicht.

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    The "article" is in fact serving as a pronoun, as the der words can do. – Epanoui Jul 12 '16 at 20:02
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The referent of the masculine dative relative pronoun dem is Erwerb and der is a feminine genitive article for Erstsprache.

  • … dass der Erwerb der Zweitsprache im Prinzip dem [Erwerb] der Erstsprache gleicht.
  • … the acquisition of the second language in principle resembles that of the first language.

This is somewhat more natural in German than in English.

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Actually a substantive is suppressed. Fully it would read:

dass der Erwerb der Zweitsprache im Prinzip dem [Erwerb] der Erstsprache gleicht

A construction like this relies on the fact, that only one masculine or neuter (since feminine would require der) substantive is present, which it can refer to.

As you already noted, German scientific texts often don't show an intention to find a phrasing which is easy to grasp.

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