Children learning more than one language

In the UK, around 20% of children speak or understand more than one language. You might hear the terms ‘bilingual’ or ‘English as an additional language’ used to talk about these children.  

In the past, some professionals told families to only speak English at home.  Now we know that this was not helpful advice. We have strong evidence from across the world that speaking more than one language is good for children for many reasons.   

Will children get confused if they hear two or more languages at home? 

No. Around half the world’s population speak two or more languages! Lots of studies show that children can tell the difference between different languages early on. They might do something called ‘code-switching’ which is when they replace a word in one language with a word from another language – so they use two languages in one sentence. It’s nothing to worry about and is a normal part of bilingualism – even bilingual adults do it! 

Will children do worse at school if they hear two or more languages at home? 

No. In fact, many bilingual children do better academically than children who hear and speak one language. A strong foundation in one language helps children to learn other languages, including English, better – this is helps them to do well at school. 

Will children have speech and language challenges if they hear two or more languages at home? 

No. Bilingualism does not cause or contribute to speech and language challenges. However, some bilingual children will have speech and language challenges, just as children who speak only one language do. The difference is that a bilingual child with speech and language challenges will have difficulties in BOTH or ALL of their languages – not just in English. 

Many bilingual children do better academically than children who hear and speak one language

Are some languages more useful than others?  

No. Every language is important. Of course, developing English is important for children going to English-speaking schools. But research shows that when a child knows their home language, this helps their academic achievement, self-confidence, and family relationships. Later in life, it can improve their job opportunities. Importantly, it helps a child understand their culture and identity better.  

What can I do to help? 

  • As early and as often possible, encourage the child’s parents to talk to the child in their home language. If the child learns their home language well, it will be easier for them to learn English well too.
  • The more the child hears their home language, the more they will learn the language. Encourage the child’s parents to get other family members involved too and encourage them to speak their home language with their child. 
  • Make your students’ languages as visible as possible in the classroom – this sends a message to the pupils and parents about the value of their languages. 
  • Encourage the child’s family to share stories and songs in their home languages. You might like to hold a day in your setting where family members come in and share some of these with the class. Encourage families to be proud of their languages and share them like a gift! 

Further information: 

Tiny Happy People- Bilingualism