Second Language Learner

Possible problems in a child second language learner:

  • Silent period-The child is comprehending language with limited expression for 3 to 6 months.
  • Language loss-The child will begin to lose language skills from his native tongue while learning a new language.
  • Language transfer-A process in which language characteristics (grammar, concepts, or pragmatics) are carried over from the first language to the second language.
  • Inter-language- Inconsistent errors continue as the child continues to use the new language more and more.
  • Code switching-It is the substitution of structures, forms, or lexical items from the primary language for forms in the secondary language that have not yet been learned.

The following are excerpts from an article entitled, “Bilingual Children’s Mother Tongue: Why Is It Important for Education?” by Jim Cummins from the University of Toronto from The literature below supports the critical importance of strengthening the interpersonal parent-child bond in the child’s primary language to allow for successful second language learning ,as well as an easier transition into the education system of the second language. The “Wait Your Turn” program can educate parents on ways to continually build on their child’s native language skills in the home in an effort to facilitate normal language and social communication in their second language.

The level of development of children’s mother tongue is a strong predictor of their second language development.

Children who come to school with a solid foundation in their mother tongue develop stronger literacy abilities in the school language. When parents and other caregivers (e.g. grandparents) are able to spend time with their children and tell stories or discuss issues with them in a way that develops their mother tongue vocabulary and concepts, children come to school well-prepared to learn the school language and succeed educationally. Children’s knowledge and skills transfer across languages from the mother tongue they have learned in the home to the school language. From the point of view of children’s development of concepts and thinking skills, the two languages are interdependent. Transfer across languages can be two-way: when the mother tongue is promoted in school (e.g. in a bilingual education program), the concepts, language, and literacy skills that children are learning in the majority language can transfer to the home language. In short, both languages nurture each other when the educational environment permits children access to both languages.

Mother tongue promotion in the school helps develop not only the mother tongue but also children’s abilities in the majority school language.

This finding is not surprising in view of the previous findings that (a) bilingualism confers linguistic advantages on children and (b) abilities in the two languages are significantly related or interdependent. Bilingual children perform better in school when the school effectively teaches the mother tongue and, where appropriate, develops literacy in that language. By contrast, when children are encouraged to reject their mother tongue and, consequently, its development stagnates, their personal and conceptual foundation for learning is undermined.

Children’s mother tongues are fragile and easily lost in the early years of school.

Many people marvel at how quickly bilingual children seem to “pick up” conversational skills in the majority language in the early years at school (although it takes much longer for them to catch up to native speakers in academic language skills). However, educators are often much less aware about how quickly children can lose their ability to use their mother tongues, even in the home context. The extent and rapidity of language loss will vary according to the concentration of families from a particular linguistic group in the school and neighborhood. Where the mother tongue is used extensively in the community outside the school, then language loss among young children will be less. However, where language communities are not concentrated or “ghettoized” in particular neighborhoods, children can lose their ability to communicate in their mother tongue within 2-3 years of starting school. They may retain receptive (understanding) skills in the language but they will use the majority language in speaking with their peers and siblings and in responding to their parents. By the time children become adolescents, the linguistic gap between parents and children has become an emotional chasm. Pupils frequently become alienated from the cultures of both home and school with predictable results.

To reduce the extent of language loss, parents should establish a strong home language policy and provide ample opportunities for children to expand the functions for which they use the mother tongue (e.g. reading and writing) and the contexts in which they can use it (e.g. community mother tongue day care or play groups, visits to the country of origin, etc.).

Teachers can also help children retain and develop their mother tongues by communicating to them strong affirmative messages about the value of knowing additional languages and the fact that bilingualism is an important linguistic and intellectual accomplishment. For example, they can initiate classroom projects focused on (a) developing children’s language awareness (e.g. surveying and celebrating the multilingualism of students in the class) and (b) the sharing of languages in the class (e.g. every day a child brings one significant word from the home language into class and the entire class, including the teacher, learns and discusses this word.

  • children’s cultural and linguistic experience in the home is the foundation of their future learning and we must build on that foundation rather than undermine it;
  • every child has the right to have their talents recognized and promoted within the school.


Baker, C. (2000). A parents’ and teachers’ guide to bilingualism. 2nd Edition. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.
Cummins, J. (2000). Language, power, and pedagogy. Bilingual children in the crossfire. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.Skutnabb-Kangas, T. (2000). Linguistic genocide in education-or worldwide diversity and human rights? Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

These and many other symptoms can be assessed and possibly even helped through our services.