7 Tips When English is your Child’s Second Language

With so many families speaking multiple languages at home, parents are often concerned about their children having more difficulty learning English. There are a number of ways to incorporate English at home when it isn’t your first language. In this blog, we will discuss simple tips and tricks for how you can ensure your child is set up for success when they are learning English as their second language. As a disclaimer, this blog will focus on the Canadian education system and therefore focus on learning English at school. These same methods can be applied globally for any language.

1. Integrate English into Your Home Life, not Just at School

The main way children learn a new language is by being surrounded by it. They soak up all of the words and phrases that they hear on a daily basis. Enrolling your child in an English speaking school will allow for this, but it is also important that you maintain it at home. This does not mean abandoning your dominant language by any means, but rather, including English periodically – but consistently – throughout your child’s everyday life. “Think about the way your child learned their first language – it was through playing and talking with you throughout the day. The same applies to their second language

One worthwhile technique is to make a point of reading English books with them at home. The photos in simple books will give children the image associated with specific phrases.

2. Have Positive and Reactive Responses

When children begin interacting with key caregivers in English and see a positive response, they will continue to do so. At home, this can mean that you react positively whenever your child chooses to use an English word in everyday conversation. Respond enthusiastically in English as a way for them to see the excitement that they receive when they practice their English . In a 2014 study, researchers found that children who spent more time in responsive interactions with their parents and educators tended to have bigger vocabularies [1].

3. Focus on Topics That Interest Them

Children will have more motivation to learn certain words that surround a topic of their interest. When you’re reacting, be sure to centre the topic around the subject they have chosen. Children will be listening for other words and phrases that describe the topic they are interested in. Make note of the topics they bring up so that you can use it later on if they need motivation to speak English . Studies have shown that children are more likely to learn the names of objects when their parents follow their lead and create responsive interactions based on their child’s interests, as opposed to when their parents redirect their child’s attention to other things [1].

4. Children Need to Hear Diverse Examples of Words and Language Structures

When you have your verbal interactions throughout the day, be sure to change things up as you go. This can mean a variety of topics, a variety of contexts and a variety of partners. When your children are enrolled in English speaking child cares or activities, it is a great way to incorporate a variety of language partners. They need to know that English is coming from multiple sources rather than just you. A simple idea to provide proper context is by using ‘listen and do’ tasks. Listen and Do Tasks are activities that help learners develop their listening comprehension by providing opportunities for a physical response to the input provided. In other words, say things to them that will allow for a physical response. E.g. Can you go and touch the lamp? This provides context for the words you are saying.

5. Provide Context

When speaking to them, the best practice would be to use short sentences that you know the proper grammar for. Using a word in a sentence will provide the necessary context for the definition of a word: This insight is in line with research on memory: adults retain information long-term when it is presented in integrated contexts rather than as a set of isolated facts. For example, if the child just hears “window” while you point to the window, the child will not know if you’re referring to the window frame, the glass, the tree outside, the sun, etc. If you put the window in context such as ‘you can see the backyard through the window and if you touch it you can feel that it is made of glass’, then they will be able to identify which object you are referring to.

6. Don’t Stop Using Their Dominant Language at Home 

Although we have discussed the reasons for incorporating English in your home, it is vital  that you continue speaking your native tongue. Unless you are fluent in English yourself, you want to make sure that you are speaking to your child in a language that you can use the correct grammar and structure with so that they can learn those as well.  Research has shown that a child is at risk of losing his home language unless they continues to hear it spoken to them and around them [2].

7. Don’t Stress About Grammar too Much (it goes hand in hand with language development)

That is not to say that you should be using incorrect grammar when speaking to your children, on the contrary, if you struggle with English , you want to ensure that you are using only sentence structures that you know are correct. With that being said, children learn the majority of the grammar for their first language from simply being integrated into the language, same goes for their second. They will be able to develop the majority of their necessary grammatical structure subconsciously. 

Overall, there are many ways to continue your ESL learning at home. As with many of our blogs, there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to learning a language. These are situations that we have found work for the majority of families we have supported.

  1. Restrepo, M.A., Morgan, G. P., & Thompson, M. S. (2013). The Efficacy of a Vocabulary Intervention for Dual-Language Learners with Language Impairment. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 56, 748-765.
  2. Rowe, M. (2012). A Longitudinal Investigation of the Role of Quantity and Quality of Child-Directed Speech in Vocabulary Development. Child Development: 83(5), 1762-1774.

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