The importance of a child’s first language when learning English as an additional language

By Claudia Van De Laar

The British School of Amsterdam proudly hosts a culturally diverse population with families from all over the world, with many of the children learning English as an additional language when they join the school.

When teaching early years (children aged 3 to 6), it’s important to note that some children are just starting their English language learning journey, while others are already proficient speakers. Regardless of a child’s proficiency in English when they start school, it is important that parents and staff understand the role of a child’s first language to support learning an additional language.

Understanding bilingualism

More than half of the world’s population speak at least two languages and they are increasingly expected to know at least one other language, with lots of research out there highlighting the benefits of it. For children, advantages include having a positive effect on linguistic and educational development. Parents that raise their children with more than one language should have some understanding of the theory and practical aspects of language learning.

There are many misconceptions, the most common probably being that young children “soak up language like a sponge.” This is simply not true; it takes one to two years for a child to learn basic interpersonal communication skills (BICS). This is the everyday language used to interact socially with adults and peers; the language on the playground. It takes five to seven years to develop Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP), which focuses on proficiency in language used in the classroom in a variety of contexts.

Why is the first / home language important?

“The level of development of children’s mother tongue is a strong predictor of their second language development” – Cummins, 2001.

Prior to enrolling their children into an English-speaking school, many parents wonder how long it will take for their child to learn English, whether they should speak English at home to help their child, and whether their own English is good enough to support their child’s learning. They are understandably worried about how their children will settle into school if they do not understand the language of the classroom.

However, it is more important for staff to know how proficient a child is in their first language so that they can understand how to support that child. Is their language development in line with their peers, or is their language development slightly behind? Parents are strongly advised to continue to use their first language(s) in their home, as this foundation will support a child’s additional language learning and will give a clear transition from home to school. English then becomes the child’s language at school.

Parents as language partners

For some families, the language circumstances can be quite complex. Perhaps both parents speak a different language in the home and use a third language to communicate with each other, and English is the fourth language in the mix.

It is important to see the process of language learning as a partnership. A partnership between members of the family, the school, and others that spend time with your child, so interact with these people and engage their support. The foundation of a strong partnership is to be aligned in your goals for the child. Remember though, raising bilingual children comes with its challenges and so it is also important to recognise when you should get additional support.

In the Early Years School at The British School of Amsterdam, they work closely with Eowyn Crisfield, author of “Bilingual Families: A Practical Language Planning Guide” to plan the best way to support your child’s language needs.

To learn more, please contact Claudia van de Laar, Head of Early Years School on You can also visit the Early Years School by booking a tour here.