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Caring for kids new to Canada

A guide for health professionals working with immigrant and refugee children and youth

Language Acquisition in Immigrant and Refugee Children: First language use and bilingualism

Key points

  • Language acquisition is the greatest predictor of a child’s success in school and in later life. Early identification and intervention for speech and language problems are essential aspects of care. 
  • Parents new to Canada provide optimal stimulation for their child and support cultural identity by speaking their home language. They are the best models for their child when they use the language they know best. 
  • Children with a strong first language base learn a second language more easily. Learning a second language can happen at any age. 
  • Children learn best from people who speak a language well. Learning one language well is better than hearing and learning two languages poorly. 
  • Consistent and frequent exposure to the home language or to multiple languages (in the case of bilingualism) is needed, ideally from family and caregivers, to ensure optimal language development.
  • Dual language exposure at a young age does not cause or contribute to language delay.  
  • Referral to local speech and  language services for children with a language problem should be encouraged, especially if they are not meeting major communication milestones on time in their dominant language, or in both languages.

First language use and bilingualism

Recent paediatric research supports the importance of first language use in the context of speech and language development in preschool children. Preschool children who develop strong language skills in their first language can learn a second language more easily and do better at school with reading and writing.1,2

In Canada, most immigrant and refugee parents have the opportunity to raise a bilingual child. While parents may have strong feelings about maintaining their heritage language and culture, raising a bilingual child can raise questions and doubts for parents about using their first language or about the impact of learning more than one language.

First or Home Language is the language first taught to a child or the language learned from birth, before the age of 3. It is usually the language heard by the child at home and used by parents for daily communication.

Paediatricians, primary care physicians and other child health professionals are ideally positioned to support families: by recommending that parents speak their first language at home and by providing strategies to facilitate bilingualism.

Current data estimates that 10-19% of preschool children have a speech or language disorder.3,4  Early identification and intervention can improve attachment and interaction between parent and child,5,6 improve the child’s overall communication development,7 and enhance brain development.8

When children show early signs of speech and language delays, families often seek support from their paediatricians, primary care physicians and other child health professionals.

All children learn one language: The importance of the first language

Recent research has clearly established the importance of first language use in the context of speech and language development in preschool children.

When it comes to dual-language learners, research supports these observations:

  1. It is important and appropriate for parents to speak to their children in their own first language.
  2. Preschool children who develop a strong first language base learn a second language more easily.
  3. Preschool children with strong language skills in their first language do better at school with reading and writing.1,9  

Encourage parents  to talk to their child in their own first language. Parents shouldn’t feel pressured to speak a second language for fear that they are risking their child’s language development, success in school or integration into Canadian society. When they use their first language, they are offering the best language models to their child: they are modelling a rich, diverse vocabulary, appropriate grammatical structures and promoting easy, fluid and natural exchanges in daily activities.1,9,10

When should parents introduce a second language?

Learning a second language can happen at any age and in a variety of environments (at home, in child care, at school). Contrary to popular beliefs, bilingualism does not trigger confusion or negatively impact the development of language in young children.

Current research demonstrates that babies have the innate ability to learn more than one language. All over the world, young children learn to speak two languages with success while growing up.

Research also indicates that learning right from birth is better; in the case of bilingualism, earlier is better!1,9 Research shows that it is easier for children to learn both languages right from birth. Parents are to be encouraged to speak their home language with their baby right from birth because their baby will effectively and more easily learn two different languages simultaneously.

Bilingual children reach the same milestones as monolinguals do for most communication milestones (e.g., first as babbling, adding vocabulary, then combining words into sentences, etc.). Although it is common for a bilingual child to have fewer words in each language when they are separately considered, it is not the case when we consider the combined vocabularies from both languages. In fact, the “conceptual” vocabulary size of a bilingual child is similar to that of a monolingual child. 

Second language is often referred to as the language learned after the age of 3. It usually appears once the first language has been established. For most internationally adopted children, the second language is learned from adoption and becomes the dominant language.It is optimal that the child learns from people who speak a language well. Learning the first language or both languages may also be crucial to preserve social and cultural identity within the child’s family and community.

Practical considerations to share with parents: 1,2,8,9

  • Speak the home language with their child. Children learn best from people who speak well.
  • When children have a strong first language base, they learn a second language more easily.
  • Children with strong language skills do better at school with reading and writing.

Simultaneous or sequential bilingualism: What to do?

Quick definitions:

  • Simultaneous: Learning two languages at the same time from birth or before age 3
  • Sequential: Learning a second language after age 3

Simultaneous bilingualism – Children learning two languages, from birth or shortly after, are simultaneous language learners. They are learning two separate language systems that also interact together. Exposure to two languages does not cause a language delay. Ideally, equal exposure to each language from the start impacts simultaneous bilingual learning.  In a bilingual home, equal exposure may be difficult to achieve. At times, one language becomes more dominant than the other.

Remind primary care providers that simultaneously bilingual children should be reaching early communication milestones (e.g., first words by 12 months, two-word phrases at 2 years) at about the same time as monolingual children.

Sequential bilingualism – Children who acquire a second language after learning a first language are considered sequential bilingual learners or “second language learners”. These children tend to go through 4 typical stages when learning a second language:

  1. The child uses the first language in the second language environment even if no one speaks the first language (e.g., Camille uses “lait” when requesting “milk” in her English child care program).
  2. The child stops using the first language in the new environment (second language environment) and has a “silent” period lasting from 3 to 6 months. In order to develop language skills in the second language,  the child will stop using a first language in the new environment. Social interaction with peers and adults will still be present. At home, the child’s first language should continue to grow (e.g., Malik stops using Arabic words in his English child care program. When playing or communicating with peers and adults, he uses gestures. At home, he continues to speak Arabic).
  3. The child starts using the second language in a telegraphic way in imitation or rote activities (e.g., counting, naming colors, labelling objects or pictures), in memorized phrases (e.g., “I don’t know.”, “What’s that?”) or by joining words into short phrases.  The child will not use grammatically correct sentences right away.
  4. Productive use of the second language: The child starts to construct sentences spontaneously but may have an accent, mispronounce words or make grammatical errors.

Acquiring  a second language does not mean a child’s oral language abilities (use of grammar, vocabulary, sentence structure) will be the same as those of a monolingual peer. Proficiency and competency in a second language develop with exposure and practice. Early language skills do develop quickly: Within 6 months to 2 years of exposure to the second language. However, it may take 5 to 7 years for a sequential bilingual child to reach similar oral language competency as a monolingual child. In sequential language learners, concerns arise if the child is not meeting early communication milestones in their first language.1,2,10,11

What normal characteristics are expected when a child is learning two languages?

Dominant language

Although a child is learning two languages, one language is used more often and proficiently. It is the language that is used spontaneously and presents with greater vocabulary, longer sentences, and fewer pauses.

  • Language dominance: One language becomes dominant because the child’s exposure to and ability to practice each language are not equal in daily life.
  • Language mixing: The child uses words from both languages in the same sentence to help replace words he does not know.  
  • Grammatical errors: Children make mistakes until they figure out the ‘rules’ in their new language.
  • Loss of their first language:  As the second language begins to prevail, children may lose their first language skills. This loss can impact relationships with parents, who feel they are no longer able to communicate fully with their children and may be concerned about erosion of cultural identity.1,2,9-11

Practical considerations to share with parents: 

To become bilingual, a child needs repeated and frequent interactions with people who speak each language well. Options are available to achieve this:1,2,10-12 

  • A “one parent-one language” approach: Each parent speaks one language to the child.
  • A “one place-one language” approach: One language is spoken at home (the first language); the other is spoken during the day in child care or at school.
  • A “one activity-one language” approach: One language is spoken for a given routine (e.g., first language at bath time), the other for a different routine (second language at dinner). One language is used at home but the other is spoken during outdoor play or at a community activity (second language used at the library during story hour).

Bilingualism and language delays

There is no evidence that exposure to two languages causes language delay.  In fact, research shows there are cognitive and social benefits to learning two languages.  Children learning two languages know the difference between them even in the earliest stages of bilingual development, and will use each language separately with different speakers, and even with a stranger.1,9,11

Bilingual children become more efficient communicators in their first language, develop a greater vocabulary, improve their listening skills, have sharper memory skills, display greater cognitive flexibility and demonstrate better problem-solving and higher-order thinking.13-15

What to do when a child has a speech or language delay?

Scientific research has shown that children with a speech or language delay or disorder will not become more delayed if they hear or learn two languages. Professionals can expect to observe the same speech and language difficulties in both languages in the case of a language learning delay.  

There is no evidence to support limiting a language-delayed child to one language to help language learning or avoid a delay. In fact, limiting a child’s exposure to a single language may negatively impact or restrict the child’s interactions with other family or community members. Research on early development tells us that it is imperative to start early, empower parents and engage children in language and literacy-rich activities.

Practical considerations to share with parents: 1,2,9,11

  • If a communication delay is present, reassure parents that bilingualism does NOT cause a delay or confusion.
  • A simultaneous bilingual child with a communication delay will present a delay in both languages. Expect similar type and severity of errors as the ones found in monolingual peers with language disorders.
  • In a sequential bilingual child who presents with a communication delay, the delay will be present in the first language.

The role of primary care providers during a well-child visit

Language plays a critical role in attachment with family members and in the formation of a strong cultural identity. Families may seek out their paediatricians, primary care physicians and other child health professionals for information on first language use and bilingualism.  

Primary care professionals and other health professionals should review the child’s language development as part of their developmental surveillance. 

When evaluating children in their first language or bilingual children, primary care providers can resort to the paediatric tools and milestones used for monolinguals, such as the LookSee Checklist, the Rourke Baby Record or other tools described in the section Child Development: Issues and Assessment.

The Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services also provides speech and language milestones brochures in 16 different languages.

Summary of key learning points

Identify the child’s first language and/or the family’s home language:

  • Ask the parent about:
    • the child’s first or home language
    • other languages used in the home
    • about the amount of exposure to each language (frequency, percentage, environment).
  • Assess language dominancy (ask parents whether the child uses one language more often).
  • To learn language, children need to hear well. Ensure that the child’s hearing is normal (i.e., do a hearing screening test).

Identify language competency in the first language or in both languages:

Even if you do NOT SPEAK the same language:

  • Identify whether a child appears to present a first language delay by using paediatric screening tools.
  • Ask about receptive and expressive language skills in both languages used by the child.
  • Identify ‘red flags’ for high-risk social communication predictors or a developmental delay.
  • Counsel parents on the importance of first language retention for later academic skills, and the risks of losing home language.
  • Reassure parents that their child’s behaviour and usage (e.g., a silent period in the second language, mixing languages, grammatical errors) are normal for a child learning two languages.

Share information with parents when a language delay is suspected:

  • Never assume that language delay is caused by exposure to two languages.
  • Reassure parents that dual language exposure has not caused or made the delay more severe. Children with a language disorder can become bilingual.
  • In simultaneous bilingualism, if a true delay exists, it will be present in both languages. Expect the same type and severity of errors as you would find in monolingual peers with a language disorder.
  • In sequential bilingualism, if a communication delay or disorder is truly present, it will be present in the first language. It takes time to learn a second language. Some children learning a second language appear to be delayed compared with their peers, but the length of time of exposure to a second language must be taken into account.
  • If a bilingual child is not meeting major communication milestones, in his first language or dominant language or in both languages (in the case of a simultaneous bilingual child), refer the child to speech and language services available in your region. 
  • Never recommend that parents limit their bilingual child’s exposure to only one language, even when a language disorder is diagnosed.
  • Speech and language pathologists usually assess a child’s skills in a first or home language with the help of a cultural interpreter. Therapy is often conducted in the child’s first language with the support of parents and a cultural interpreter. 

Offer additional strategies to parents:

  • Read often to your child in your first language. Use picture books or tell stories that you learned as a child in your first language. This will help your child develop listening, thinking, language and reading skills.
  • Watching television is not enough for your child to learn a second language. Parents need to provide many opportunities to engage in a variety of contexts (at home, in child care, at the park, in daily routines).  A child needs to hear and speak both languages to become a competent user. 
  • Play with your child in your first language. Through play, your child is building language skills: When she seeks out a playmate, follows a set of rules, negotiates, takes turns, cooperates and accepts an outcome. All these skills involve communication.
  • Sing songs in your first language. Take time to explain new words or to talk about the story behind a traditional song.

Selected resources

  1. Best Start Resource Centre. Growing up in a new land – Strategies for working with newcomer Families. Toronto, Ont.: Best Start, 2010.
    This manual contains many strategies to assist service providers who work with newcomer families with children 0-6 years of age. Background information and a list of resources, programs and activities are also provided.  
  2. Genessee F. Early Dual Language Learning. Zero to Three 2008;17-23.
  3. Paradis J, Genesee F, Brago MB. Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and  Second Language Learning, 2nd edn. Baltimomer, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing, 2011.
  4. First Words Preschool Speech Language program
  5. The Ontario Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services development milestones and strategies, online.
  6. Hold On to Your Home Language Ryerson University’s School of Early Childhood Education developed this website to raise awareness of the importance of home language retention. 


  1. Paradis J, Genesee F, Brago, MB. Dual Language Development and Disorders: A Handbook on Bilingualism and Second Language Learning, 2nd edn.  Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing, 2011.
  2. Thomas WP, Collier V. School effectiveness for language minority students. NCBE Resource Collection Series, No. 9. Wasington, D.C.: National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education, 1997.
  3. Beitchman JH, Nair R, Clegg M, et al.  Prevalence of speech and language disorders in 5-year-old kindergarten children in the Ottawa-Carleton region.  J Speech  Hear  Disord 1986; 51(2):98-110.
  4. Nelson HD, Nygren P, Walker M, et al. Screening for speech and language delay in preschool children: Systematic evidence review for the US Preventive Services Task Force. Pediatrics 2006;117(2):e298-319.
  5. MacDonald J.  Becoming partners with children. San Antonio, TX: Special Press, 1989.
  6. Wilcox M. Enhancing initial communication skills in young children with developmental disabilities through partner programming.  Seminars in Speech and Language 1992;13:3194-212.
  7. Barnett W, Escobar C. Economic costs and benefits of early intervention.  In:  Meisels SJ, Shonkoff JP (eds.), Handbook of Early Childhood Intervention.  New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 1990.
  8. Florida Starting Points. Maximizing Florida’s brain power: We need to use it or lose it.  Carnegie Corporation and the United Way of Florida; Success by Six, 1997.
  9. Cummins J. Bilingualism and minority language children. Toronto, Ont.: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1981.
  10. Cummins J. Language, Power and Pedgogy: Bilingual Children in the Crossfire. Clevedon, U.K.: Multilingual Matters, 2000. 
  11. Goldstein BA.  Clinical implications of research on language development and disorders in bilingual children. Lang Disord 2006;26(4):305-21.
  12. Watson C, Cummins J. One language or two? Helping families from other cultures decide on how to talk to their language-delayed child.  Hanen Centre: WigWag, 1995.
  13. Barac R, Bialystok E. Cognitive development of bilingual children. Language Teaching (Cambridge UP) 2011 44(1)1:36-54.
  14. Kempert S, Hardy I, Saalbach H, Hardy I. Cognitive benefits and costs of bilingualism in elementary school students: The case of mathematical word problems.  J Educational Psychology  2011;103(3): 547-61.
  15. Yang S, Yang H, Lust B. Early childhood bilingualism leads to advances in executive attention: Dissociating culture and language. Bilingualism: Language and cognition (Cambridge UP) 2011;14(3):412-22. 


  • Roxane Bélanger, M.Sc.SLP, reg. CASLPO
  • Reviewed by: Odion Kalaci, MD

Last updated: February, 2023