Supporting Early Speech & Language Development - Children with a Second Language

Communicating involves the child giving, receiving and understanding information.   Communication is one of the key themes of Aistear and underpins all of the principles of Siolta.  Supporting a young child to communicate means providing an environment that will scaffold the child in their ability to make sense of the world.


Speech and language is more than just verbal processes.  It is about culture, it is about family background, it is about facial expressions, it is about gestures,   it is about feelings, and it is about social skills.  Speech, language and communication are crucial to a child’s future learning and development.  Without adequate skills in speech, language and communication, a child cannot fully participate in education and in daily life.

This is even more important to acknowledge where the child’s first language is not English.  Census 2011 showed over half a million residents spoke a language other than English at home.  This results in large numbers of children with English as a second language attending pre-school services.  Early childhood educators must make extra efforts to support these children in their ability to communicate. 


The child’s first language must never be discouraged; it must be actively promoted at all times:


  • The child’s first language is the language spoken in their home.  It is the language used to comfort them.  It is the language used to sing nursery rhymes.  It is the language used for affection and intimacy.  It is the language of their parents, of their grandparents, of their sisters and brothers and cousins.  It is the language of their culture.  It is their identity.


  • A child’s cognitive ability to learn a second language is directly influenced by their proficiency in their first language – they will learn English better if they have strong ability in their first language.


The following are some tips for a service in supporting second language acquisition:


  • Encourage the family to continue to use the first language or home language in the home at all times as it is a prerequisite to second language acquisition.


  • Remember, language is more than just verbal processes.  Use music, songs, rhymes and pictures from different cultures to support language development.


  • Value the child’s home language by learning key words from their language.


  • Encourage them to share objects, pictures, items related to their culture.


  • Encourage parental involvement; invite them to share experiences, words, foods, items of interest from their culture with all of the children in the setting.


  • To build a child’s self-esteem and status within the setting, allow them opportunities where they will succeed.  Opportunities not based around spoken language, jobs such as giving out the drinks etc.



  • This process takes time.  It can take up to 2 years for a child to acquire basic communication skills in a second language.  It can take up to 5 years for a child to acquire the cognitive language skills required to be successful in education.


  • The silent period can be normal for children acquiring a second language.  This can be a productive period where the child is observing and gauging how the new language is used. 


  • Ensure children are never excluded because of their ability to communicate.   Provide opportunities for communication through visual supports, gestures.  Keep routines consistent so these children will be confident in what they can expect from their day.


  • Observe and record verbal and non-verbal communication with the other children in the group to keep track of their language development.


  • Never answer or speak on behalf of children learning a second language.  Many researchers suggest adopting the 7 second rule – wait seven seconds before asking another question or offering alternative gestures.


You can support your understanding and learning on this topic through the following publication, available from Barnardo’s Training and Resource Service:

Geraldine French. (2013). Early Speech and Language Matters:  Enriching the Communication Environment and Language Development in Early Childhood.  Dublin: Barnardo’s Training and Resource Service.


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