Second Language

A child’s second language is the language a child speaks less often and usually knows fewer words of. A child may eventually become equally fluent in both tongues, but it will likely be a more gradual learning curve.

What can I expect when a child is learning a second language?

  • A silent time of up to 6 months in the second language: A child needs time to understand a new language before using it. During this time, the child might listen but not talk. However, the child’s first language should continue to grow according to the expected speech and language milestones.
  • Mixing the two languages: Children may use words from both languages in one sentence to help replace words they don’t know. Repeat what your child has said in one language to give him/her the words they don’t know.
  • Grammatical errors: Children will make mistakes in the new language until they figure out all the rules.

How can I help my child learn more than one language?

Your child needs to hear and practice using each language often, every day. Here are some ways to do this:

  • “One parent-one language”: One parent speaks one language to the child; the other parent speaks the other language to the child.
  • “One place-one language”: One language is spoken at home; the other at day care or at school or at a community activity.
  • “One activity-one language”: One language is spoken at bath time; the other is spoken during outdoor play.

Whatever strategy you choose, expose your child to each language at least 30% of each day. If your child does not hear and practice each language at least 30% of each day, they will continue to learn the new language, however it will take a longer period of time before your child begins to understand and speak it.

Since I speak two languages well, I sometimes switch from one language to the other. Could it cause a delay?

Bilingual speakers sometimes switch back and forth between languages. This will not cause a language delay. But, using the “One parent-one language” strategy can help you manage language use in your family and make sure that your child will get enough practice in both languages. This is very important when one language is spoken very little outside the home. Your child needs to hear both languages often, to be able to use both. As a parent, you need to decide which language to use with family and with people who visit your home. Remember, if you are not fluent in one of those languages, it is best to only use your first language.

My child has a speech/language delay. Will speaking two languages make the delay worse?

No. There is no proof that children with a speech or a language delay will be more delayed if they hear two or more languages. However, they will have the same speech and language difficulties in both/all languages. Remember, if you suspect your child is experiencing a delay; complete the Communication Checkup online screening.

Can children learn a 3rd or 4th language?

Children can learn more than two languages. Research shows that children need to hear a new language at least 30% of their day to be able to use it. A child may understand a language but not speak it if they are not exposed to it often enough. It may take the child many years to learn a 3rd or 4th language.

I use my first language with my child but they answer in English. What should I do?

Keep speaking your first language, even if the child answers in English. Just hearing the language helps your child learn their first language. Watch movies, read books or play games in your first language. Plan special activities with family members in your first language. Look for children’s programs in the community in your first language. Make it fun!

Strategies that help children learn language:

  • using gestures and actions
  • using simple everyday words
  • making important words stand out
  • using simple, short sentences
  • slowing down while speaking
  • repeating, repeating, repeating
  • talking about the here-and-now
  • setting up times for your child to play with other children