Bilingualism is the ability to communicate in more than one language.
Bilingualism can be an advantage as:
- It helps children’s learning as they can think about their ideas in both languages.
- It enables them to communicate with more people in their community and help them to understand different cultures.
- They stay connected to their family and extended family, so they feel secure in their identity and have more self-confidence.
- They can learn other languages more easily which can widen their opportunities in the future.
There is no evidence that bilingual children learn to speak later. Some children, whether bilingual or monolingual, learn to speak later than others.
Advice for parents
- Keep speaking your own language at home. Don’t feel that you have to start speaking English with your child because they are learning it at nursery or school.
- Talk to your child in your own language about what you’re doing together during activities e.g. bath time, shopping, at the park.
- Use your own language to talk to your child about what he did at nursery or school. If he uses English words, repeat what he said in your own language if you can. Do not correct him or force him to use your language.
- Encourage your child to play with children who speak the same language that he does.
- Have fun with songs, rhymes and stories in your own language. You can use books or make up your own stories. Encourage your child to join in with the storytelling. If appropriate, try to find books written in your language to help him become familiar with how it looks.
- If both parents speak different languages to the child, it is natural to switch between the two at home, but keep the vocabulary consistent.
- Help your child be proud of your language. If he speaks more than one language, teach him the names of those languages.
Advice for professionals
- Parents should be encouraged to speak to their child in the language(s) they feel most comfortable using. It is the quality of the parent-child interaction that is most important. Never advise the parents to stop using their own language at home in favour of English.
- Children go through roughly the same developmental stages of language acquisition when learning a second language as they do for their first. It is important to remember this when speaking with a child who is new to English – keep phrases short and explicit and repeat vocabulary often.
- Reduce your speech rate and give the child with English as a second or additional language extra time to:
- listen and respond
- adapt to nursery or school routine
- become familiar with English.
- Children new to English often go through a silent period when they say nothing in their new environment e.g. nursery. This may last several months. It is a natural process and should not be confused with selective mutism.
- Promote the feeling of the child’s first language being important by asking the child to teach you and the other children some words in their language. Try labelling objects in the classroom in the child’s language as well as English.
- Immerse the child in a language rich educational environment from the start – minimise the amount of time spent in special classes for English as a second language. Peer group interaction is a great way of developing the child’s confidence in using both their own language (if there are others who speak it) and English.
- Use visual and practical activities and teaching methods to reinforce the language being used. This will enable the child to pick up new vocabulary in the most appropriate way and to link it to the correct context.
- When the child attempts English words or phrases, model back targets for any errors they make with grammar or speech sounds. Do not directly correct the child as this is likely to reduce confidence and self-esteem and will make them less willing to try.
For further advice on developing language please use the Building Blocks to select the appropriate section for your child’s age. Please also see our document on First Language Assessment.