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July 26, 2012

Language Development and Children Learning English as a 2nd Language

Posted by: Amy Svensson M.A., CCC-SLP

Our practice has been receiving many calls from parents who have concerns about their child(ren)’s language development and whether or not because they are learning their native language in tandem with English this could be causing a delay.  This has sparked my interest in writing a blog post on Language Development and English as Second Language (ESL) learners.  This is a very large topic of discussion in the fields of speech-language pathology and child language development and by no means can this one post cover this topic in great depth. However, please feel free to contact me at should you wish for me to guide you to further resources on this topic.  You can also contact our national organization, the American Speech and Hearing Association.

It is my professional opinion that teaching a child more than one language simultaneously is a very good thing. It supports brain development and synapses that would not otherwise occur.  Can it slow language development, perhaps but if done correctly and systematically and there are not other cognitive delays, skills will catch up.

It is our job as speech-language pathologists to first make sure that there truly is a delay and it is not just a difference.  Upon intake in our practice, I ask parents, “Do you see delays in your child’s native language?”  Following intake, an evaluation (formal and/or informal) will take place that always includes a thorough case history completed by the caregivers/parents.  A non-biased interpreter may also be called in to be part of the evaluation if the therapist is not fluent in the child’s native language and they can’t obtain enough information from the parents.

Once a delay is diagnosed, it is our job to provide therapy to the child to close the language development gap and, just as important, mentor and guide parents and caregivers on how to best incorporate bi/multi-lingual language teaching in the child’s environment.

Tips I give parents of my bi/multi-lingual patients are:

  • Set boundaries as to which language will be used when. This allows for the child’s brain to code-switch.  Code switching is defined by as “The practice of moving back and forth between languages or between two dialects or registers of the same language.”

Example #1:  (Mom speaks English, dad speaks Spanish) – When the child is solely with mom, only English is spoken.  When the child is with dad, only Spanish is spoken.  If both parents are with the child simultaneously, decide and stick to which language will be spoken.  Do not go back and forth as the child’s brain will get confused on which language repertoire to tap into.

Example #2:  (Both parents speak Hindi, but want the child to learn English) – The parents can set the boundary that whenever they are at home, Hindi is spoken, but when the child is at school, English will be spoken.  When the family goes on outings, speak English, but return to Hindi when they return home.

Example #3: One can get even more specific in that at bedtime when dad reads to the child, Language A is spoken and when mom does the bedtime routine, Language B is spoken.

Example #4: Only Language A or Language B is spoken at the dinner table.

All these examples, and they are just examples, allow for the child’s brain to predict which language to switch to and use…the vocabulary, semantics, and syntax that is specific to the language in use at any given time.

  • Cultural enrichment is also a very important element in teaching more than one language.
  • Have books available in both/all languages so that the child can become familiar with the written form in the taught languages.

As I reviewed articles for this post, below is an excerpt from an article in Language Arts, Vol. 77, No.3, January 2000 written by Susan Watts-Taffe and Diane M. Truscott

Using What We Know about Language and Literacy Development for ESL Students in the Mainstream Classroom”


Research has taught us a great deal about how children become literate. Some of the most powerful lessons we’ve learned are these:

  • Reading, writing, listening, speaking, and thinking develop in an integrated manner (Au, 1998);
  • Language and thought are socially constructed 
(Vygotsky, 1987);
  • Language learning proceeds best when children use language for meaningful purposes (Au, 1998);
  • What constitutes meaningful language use is 
influenced by an individual’s prior experience, culture, motivation, and goals (Delpit, 1995);
  • Language learning proceeds best when children are 
encouraged to take risks, experiment, and make mistakes (Wells, 1986); and
  • Modeling and scaffolding are critical to successful 
language learning (Roehler & Cantlon, 1997; Wood, Bruner, & Ross, 1976).

Despite the controversy over whether initial language development should be encouraged in the native language, in English, or both (Fitzgerald, 1995; Garcia & Padilla, 1985; Weber, 1991; Wong Fillmore & Valadez, 1986), it appears that these tenets of literacy development hold for both native English speakers and students learning English as a second language (Carrasquillo & Rodríguez, 1996; Donato, 1994; Fitzgerald & Noblit, 1999; Pérez, 1998a).

You can read the article in its entirety at: Language and Literacy for ESL

Again, this is a very broad topic and warrants further discussion, especially being that the world in which we now live is so diverse.  It is my hope that this post provided some helpful tips and stemmed curiosity on language development of children learning more than one language.





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