First Language

What is a child’s first language?

The first language is usually the language a child has learned from birth to 3 years and hears most often in their day. Many Ottawa children have more than one first language!

What is the difference between a first language and a dominant language?

When children learn two languages at the same time from birth, one of these languages may become dominant. A child’s dominant language is the language that the child uses more often, knows more words in, and is able to make longer sentences with fewer pauses.

My child is starting daycare/school in English. Should I start speaking to them in English at home instead of using my first language?

No, keep speaking your first language with your child. When children have a strong first language, they learn a second language more easily. Children already know how to communicate in their first language and will only need to learn the new words in the new language. They also do better at school with reading and writing. Research has shown that families who maintain their first language at home have children who continue to use their first language into adulthood.

Children can be exposed to other languages through activities such as:

  • Community playgroups,
  • Story time at the Ottawa Public library,
  • Play dates with neighbours, friends or at the park,
  • Cultural events.

How can I help my child learn their first language?

Children learn language best from people who speak the language well and often. They learn to talk by listening and speaking with parents, siblings, grandparents, friends and caregivers. So go ahead – speak your first language!

Help children by:

  • Naming objects, actions and feelings
  • Talking about what you are doing, seeing and hearing
  • Telling stories and reading
  • Singing songs and rhymes
  • Playing together

Your child needs to hear language all day, every day!

If you are concerned about a child’s communication in their first language, consider the following options:

If you still have concerns:

  • Contact the First Words Intake at CHEO 613-737-7600 ext. 2500 to add your child’s name on the waiting list for a Speech and Language assessment. You do not need a referral from a Health Professional.
  • Families and physicians can refer directly to First Words Intake at CHEO 613-737-7600 ext. 2500 or by fax 613-738-4893

Talk with Your Child in Your First Language: A Primary Language Literacy Project

Check out these quick and easy strategy guides for helping your child learn their primary language, available in six languages!