1 child 2 languages

Growing up with two languages is the rule rather than the exception around the world. In many countries two or more languages are widely spoken because of migration, or because there are established bilingual/multilingual communities. In England about 20% of children in primary schools and 16% of children in secondary schools now speak English as an additional language (EAL) which means that they are bilingual to some extent. EAL learners are a very diverse group of children: some have grown up with two languages and by the time they start school they already have some English language skills; others have had some contact with English before they start school, but they mainly hear and/or speak another language at home; others still may have just recently arrived in the country with little or no English.

Speaking more than one language is a great asset and maintenance of languages other than English should be supported wherever possible.  Although bilingual children have to make sense of what they hear – just like children who only have one language – their time is divided across two languages, and they may need more time to learn specific words in each of their languages, or how words are put together in sentences in their two languages.

The amount of language children hear, the number of different speakers they have access to in each language, how proficient those speakers are in the language,  are all factors that will affect how fast bilingual children will develop in their languages, and how much of each language they will be able to understand and speak. Two 6-year-olds in the same class may therefore have very different knowledge and understanding of English if English is an additional language for one of them. For example a bilingual child may have recently arrived in the UK from Poland with her family where she only heard and spoke Polish. After starting school in the UK her time is divided between Polish at home with parents and siblings, and English at school with teachers and other children. At the beginning of the school year this child’s English will inevitably be extremely limited, and she will probably be unlikely to make much sense even of a simple story. Six months later she will be able to understand much more, and even more a year after first starting school. How well this EAL learner will understand a text in English when she hears or reads it, will depend on many different factors.