how children learn two languages or become bilingual

Tips for Parents to Help Children Learn their Home Language and English

  • Always talk a lot to your child in your language. Even when the child is too little to understand you should talk to them about what you are doing when you are cooking, writing, shopping etc...
  • Teach your child nursery rhymes and songs in your own language.
  • Tell your child stories in your language. Encourage your child to join in with the story telling.
  • Talk to your children about what they did at playgroup, nursery or school in your language. If they use English words repeat what they have said using your language.
  • Don't be frightened to use your language in public. If some people don't like it, it is their problem not yours.
  • Make sure that your child knows the names of the different languages he speaks.
  • Check that your child knows which language has which name.
  • Take your child to concerts, plays, poetry readings, films etc. where they will hear people using your language.
  • Try to make sure your children play with children who speak the same home language as they do.
  • Find out if there is a community language school in your area where your language is taught. Your child might benefit from attending classes there.
  • Try to find books written in your language for your child. If there aren't any try to make your own or ask someone else to help you.
  • Make your child feel proud of your language.
  • Don't laugh or tease your child because of her accent or if she makes mistakes.

Source: Bilingual Children: a guide for parents and carers, written by Foufou Savitzky, London Language and Literacy Unit, South Bank University, 1994. Copies of this booklet are available from Avanti Books, phone 01438 747000, email

Parents' frequently asked questions

Is it true that all bilingual children start to speak later than monolingual children?
There is no evidence that bilingual children learn to speak later. Some children, whether bilingual or monolingual, learn to speak later than others.

Is it normal for my child to answer me in English when I speak to her in my language?
Many children do this particularly if they know that their parents understand English very well. These children will be able to speak the home language again very quickly if they need to, providing the parents continue to use the home language with them.

My child came to England six months ago and couldn't speak English. He has been at school since then. He doesn't speak at all at school. Should I start speaking English to him?
Many children refuse to speak the new language for a period of time. There are many reasons for this. The school teacher should be asked whether she thinks that the child is simply not wanting to talk until he feels he can do it well or whether he has been teased and is unhappy. If the mother stops speaking her language to her child he will feel cut off from everything he has known previously and this might make the situation worse. In some circumstances the mother could use English with her child; for instance she could play games with him such as guessing the correct English word for items on a tray; seeing who can keep speaking English for the longest time etc. He needs lots of priase and above all he needs his mother to continue speaking her language to him.

I have remarried and my new husband does not speak our language. I want my children to speak only English at home now so that my husband can understand us.
The mother needs to explain to her new husband the advantages of bilingualism and the importance of the mothertongue to the children's identity. He might decide he wants to be bilingual too! She should also explain to her children there are times when English will be used in the family but this will only be some of the time.

I'm not teaching my children my language because it is not a proper language. It isn't even written down and educated people don't speak it.
Being bilingual in any language can have very positive effects on children and their education. It is also important for reasons of identity particularly when children become teenagers. The fact that a language is not written down does not mean it is not a language. It is generally a reflection of the lack of political status and power of the people who speak it. English has not always been a written language.

I'm not teaching my child our family's language. I want him to learn English first then he can learn our language.
Many parents say this. It is important to remember that the younger a child is the easier it is to learn a language. Also many children feel left out in their families when everyone around them is speaking a language they cannot understand. Children in this situation also miss out on all the advantages of bilingualism and can develop serious identity problems as they grow up.

My children tell me not to speak my language to them in the school playground or in public.
Children who are not encouraged from very young to feel very proud of their language and culture can feel like this. Also children who are teased at school may feel embarrased. The school should be encouraged to see bilingualism as an extra skill which the child has. He should be praised publicly for using it. Some children respond very well to being told of the advantages of being bilingual. Attending classes at a commuity language school can also help children to feel much more positive about their bilingualism.

My child is four years old and is only just beginning to speak. She sees a speech therapist to help her. The therapist has said that we should stop speaking our language to her and just use English as she will become confused. Our English is not very good.
There is no evidence that bilingualism will make it harder for children with speech problems to develop speech. If the family stops speaking their language to a child who already has a speech problem there is a possibility that the child will become even more isolated and unable to speak. The added problem of communication in the family being difficult in English can only add to the problem. A child with a speech problem needs to be surrounded by speech and people who feel confident in their use of langauge so that she has positive role models. In many countries children with special needs have no choice as education is not in their own language and they learn to speak several languages to the best of their ability. Some researchers in this field even think that bilingualism can be very positive for these children.

I speak Cantonese to my four year old daughter. My husband speaks English to her. When she speaks Cantonese she uses some English words as well as Cantonese. She does the same when she speaks English. Is she confused?
Children will use words that they know rather than not say anything at all. For instance if a child knows the word for 'ice cream' in one language and not the other she will use the word in the language she knows rather than not ask for ice cream at all. The child is not confused; she is simply making use of all the language she has.

During the holidays we had been to see one of Henry VIII's castles and my son knew a lot about him. When he told me in English that they were doing work on Henry VIII at school I suggested he should bring in the information we had from the castle we had visited. My son looked very confused. it was not until I explained to him that Henri Huit in French is the same as Henry the Eighth in English that he realised he already knew a lot about this king. Is this normal?
It is not at all unusual for children not to see the relationship between things which they have experienced in different languages. That is why children benefit from doing their homework and talking about their school work in English as well as the home language.

Source: Bilingual Children: a guide for parents and carers, written by Foufou Savitzky, London Language and Literacy Unit, South Bank University, 1994. Copies of this booklet are available from Avanti Books, phone 01 438 3500155, email