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Children who are learning to speak English as an additional language should not be regarded as having a speech and language difficulty. Even children who have had limited exposure to English before going to school can become competent communicators. However, some of these children may have speech and language difficulties in their heritage or home language.

This section includes relevant resources and advice to support children who have EAL (English as an Additional Language) and also children who have speech and language difficulties in their heritage/home language.

Bilingualism is when a person understands and/or uses two or more languages, regardless of their level of skill in any language.

Some children are exposed to more than one language all of the time (this can be called simultaneous bilingualism) and others may start to hear additional languages after learning their first one (sequential bilingualism).

Codeswitching (or language mixing) is when a person uses two different languages at the same time, this may be different for different sentences, or may be within the same sentence.  This is normal, and does not indicate confusion or an impairment.

When children learn English as a second language, they build on skills they developed learning their first language.

Speak to your child in the language you feel most confident speaking as it helps your child communicate with their wider family and community. It helps your child to value and share your culture and traditions.

Schools and teachers know that being bilingual helps your child’s thinking and learning as the child gets older.

Some tips for helping your child to learn your own language

  • Talk to your child in your own language(s), the ones you are fluent and confident to speak in (don’t worry if this is not English). Your child will have opportunities to learn English in school or nursery.
  • If you’re speaking English to your child and your English isn’t as good as your own language this may actually cause your child more difficulties.
  • Talking in your own language helps your child to communicate with their wider family and community. It helps your child to value and share your culture and traditions.
  • Talk about what you are doing in your language (even before your baby is born as they can hear your voice and language).
  • Sing songs, rhymes in your own language with your child.
  • Share any picture books in your own language.

Further information on helping your child learn more than one language can be found at:

If you are worried about how your child is learning their own language, please see the advice in the Early Language and Early Communication sections of the toolkit. If you have tried these strategies and you are still concerned, you can refer your child to our service.

Key Principles

  • Bilingualism is an asset and first language has a continuing and significant role in identity, learning and acquisition of additional languages. *
  • Children need to develop strong foundations in their first language as first language skills are transferable to new language an strengthen children's understanding of language use *
  • Research has shown that encouraging children to become bilingual can contribute to their cognitive flexibility. (Shutnabb - Kangas 1981) (Milne and Clarke 1993)
  • Insistence on an English only approach in the home may lead to a child being denied opportunities to develop proficiency in either languages. 
  • First languages are need to maintain family connections. (Siraj - Blatchford and Clarke 2000)
  • Practitioners have a key role in reassuring parents that maintaining and developing their home language will benefit their children and support their developing skills in English. *

*Supporting children learning English as an additional language. Primary National Strategy, Department for Children, Schools and Families 2007

I am learning English as a second language...

If you are concerned about my language development in English, ask my parents about my first language development.

Bilingualism is a great advantage. Bilingual children with good literacy development in both languages score better on IQ tests than monolinguals.

I might be quiet for up to a year once I have arrived in school in the UK – don’t worry this is called a silent period and is normal.

Please encourage my parents to continue to speak to me in my first language at home.

I need cognitive challenges – just because English isn’t my first language doesn’t mean I am not intelligent!

It may take me up to 7 years to develop proficiency in academic language – please be patient!

If you have bilingual support, help me to learn new vocabulary and concepts in my first language as well as English.

When I mix English and my first language it is a sign of grammatical sophistication, so don’t worry – I am doing fine!

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