Bilingualism by Clare Furneaux

There are now more than one million learners in UK schools who speak English as an additional language (EAL). This represents a considerable proportion of the school population, well above 15 per cent.

EAL learners come from very diverse backgrounds. Some arrive seeking asylum, while others follow families coming to the UK as economic migrants or for other reasons. EAL learners also include those who were born and raised in the UK speaking a language other than English. The most common first languages spoken by EAL learners include Polish, Punjabi, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, Portuguese, Spanish and Tamil.

As a Speech and Language Therapist, parents with children learning English as an additional language often come to me concerned that when their child first starts school that they will be at a disadvantage compared to their monolingual English speaking peers. Parents also often ask me if their child will be confused learning two languages and whether they should focus on speaking English only at home with their child.  

While it will take the child some time to pick up English particularly if this language is completely new to them, research suggests that bilingual children actually perform better academically, are socially and linguistically more aware and more cognitively and intellectually advantaged compared to their monolingual peers.

So the take home message is that being bilingual is something to be proud of and can actually be an advantage to your child academically so continue to encourage your child to use their home language/s as well as English as much as possible!

Bilingual Advice

  • It is important that you continue to use ALL the languages introduced to your child.
  •  Do not be concerned about mixing different languages. This is natural for a bilingual speaker.
  • The focus should be helping your child feel successful in giving and receiving a message. Continue speaking your chosen language/s to your child even if he or she speaks back to you in a different language. If the child responds the message has been understood.
  •  Use short phrases with lots of gesture and facial expression, as well as expression in your voice. This will help your child understand the meaning behind the words.

Does my Child need a Referral to a Speech and Language Therapist?

When a child is developing English as an additional language it is normal for them to not be using ‘perfect English’ in terms of grammar and sentence structure.

However, if you have any of the following concerns your child may benefit from an assessment by a speech and language therapist to check they don’t have underlying language difficulties:

  • Significant difficulties understanding and using language across ALL of the languages the child is exposed to.
  • Social interaction difficulties – difficulties maintaining eye contact, sitting and listening.
  • VERY slow progress learning English. Once your child has had time to settle into school speak to the class teacher to see if they have any concerns around the rate of progress your child is making learning English.

Clare Furneaux

Speech and Language Therapist