How young children learn English as another language

Book review image

By Opal Dunn, educational consultant and author


Young children are natural language acquirers; they are self-motivated to pick up language without conscious learning, unlike adolescents and adults. They have the ability to imitate pronunciation and work out the rules for themselves. Any idea that learning to talk in English is difficult does not occur to them unless it’s suggested by adults, who themselves probably learned English academically at a later age through grammar-based text books.

Read the notes below about young children learning English as another language. You can also download these notes as a booklet. Right-click on the link below to download the booklet to your computer. You may print this booklet.

The advantages of beginning early

  • Young children are still using their individual, innate language-learning strategies to acquire their home language and soon find they can also use these strategies to pick up English.
  • Young children have time to learn through play-like activities. They pick up language by taking part in an activity shared with an adult. They firstly make sense of the activity and then get meaning from the adult’s shared language.
  • Young children have more time to fit English into the daily programme. School programmes tend to be informal and children’s minds are not yet cluttered with facts to be stored and tested. They may have little or no homework and are less stressed by having to achieve set standards.
  • Children who have the opportunity to pick up a second language while they are still young appear to use the same innate language-learning strategies throughout life when learning other languages. Picking up third, fourth, or even more languages is easier than picking up a second.
  • Young children who acquire language rather than consciously learn it, as older children and adults have to, are more likely to have better pronunciation and feel for the language and culture. When monolingual children reach puberty and become more self-conscious, their ability to pick up language diminishes and they feel they have to consciously study English through grammar-based programmes. The age at which this change occurs depends greatly on the individual child’s developmental levels as well as the expectations of their society.

Stages in picking up English

Spoken language comes naturally before reading and writing.

Silent period
When babies learn their home language, there is a ‘silent period’, when they look and listen and communicate through facial expression or gestures before they begin to speak. When young children learn English, there may be a similar ‘silent period’ when communication and understanding may take place before they actually speak any English words.

During this time parents should not force children to take part in spoken dialogue by making them repeat words. Spoken dialogues should be one-sided, the adult’s talk providing useful opportunities for the child to pick up language. Where the adult uses parentese (an adjusted form of speech) to facilitate learning, the child may use many of the same strategies they used in learning their home language.

Beginning to talk
After some time, depending on the frequency of English sessions, each child (girls often more quickly than boys) begins to say single words (‘cat’, ‘house’) or ready-made short phrases (‘What’s that?’, ‘It’s my book’, ‘I can’t’, ‘That’s a car’, ‘Time to go home’) in dialogues or as unexpected statements. The child has memorised them, imitating the pronunciation exactly without realising that some may consist of more than one word. This stage continues for some time as they child picks up more language using it as a short cut to dialogue before they are ready to create their own phrases.

Building up English language
Gradually children build up phrases consisting of a single memorised word to which they add words from their vocabulary (‘a dog’, ‘a brown dog’, ‘a brown and black dog’) or a single memorised language to which they add their own input (‘That’s my chair’, ‘Time to play’). Depending on the frequency of exposure to English and the quality of experience, children gradually begin to create whole sentences.


Understanding is always greater than speaking and young children’s ability to comprehend should not be underestimated, as they are used to understanding their home language from a variety of context clues. Though they may not understand everything they hear in their home language, children grasp the gist – that is they understand a few important words and decipher the rest using different clues to interpret the meaning. With encouragement they soon transfer their ‘gist’ understanding skills to interpret meaning in English.


After the initial novelty of English sessions, some young children become frustrated by their inability to express their thoughts in English. Others want to speak quickly in English as they can in their home language. Frustration can often be overcome by providing children with ‘performance’ pieces like ‘I can count to 12 in English’ or very simple rhymes, which consist of ready-made phrases.


Children should not be told they have made a mistake because any correction immediately demotivates. Mistakes may be part of the process of working out grammar rules of English or they may be a fault in pronunciation. ‘I goed’ soon becomes ‘went’ if the child hears the adult repeat back ‘yes, you went’; or if the adult hears ‘zee bus’ and repeats ‘the bus’. As in learning their home language, if children have an opportunity to hear the adult repeat the same piece of language correctly, they will self-correct in their own time.

Gender differences

Boys’ brains develop differently from girls’ and this affects how boys pick up language and use it. Sometimes mixed classes make little provision for boys, who may be overshadowed by girls’ natural ability to use language. If young boys are to reach their potential, they need some different language experiences with girls and their achievements should not be compared with those of girls.

Language-learning environments

Young children find it more difficult to pick up English if they are not provided with the right type of experiences, accompanied by adult support using ‘parentese’ techniques.

  • Young children need to feel secure and know that there is some obvious reason for using English.
  • Activities need to be linked to some interesting everyday activities about which they already know, eg sharing an English picture book, saying a rhyme in English, having an ‘English’ snack.
  • Activities are accompanied by adult language giving a running commentary about what is going on and dialogues using adjusted parentese language.
  • English sessions are fun and interesting, concentrating on concepts children have already understood in their home language. In this way children are not learning two things, a new concept as well as new language, but merely learning the English to talk about something they already know.
  • Activities are backed up by specific objects, where possible, as this helps understanding and increases general interest.


Children who can already read in their home language generally want to find out how to read in English. They already know how to decode words in their home language to get meaning from text and, if not helped to decode in English, may transfer their home language-decoding techniques and end up reading English with the home language accent.

Before they can decode English, young children need to know the 26 alphabet letter names and sounds. As English has 26 letters but on average 44 sounds (in standard English), introducing the remaining sounds is better left until children have more experience in using language and reading,

Beginning reading in English goes easily if young children already know the language they are trying to read. Many children work out by themselves how to read in English if they have shared picture books with adults or learned rhymes, as they are likely to have memorised the language. Reading what they know by heart is an important step in learning to read as it gives children opportunities to work out how to decode simple words by themselves. Once children have built up a bank of words they can read, they feel confident and are then ready for a more structured approach.

Parental support

Children need to feel that they are making progress. They need continual encouragement as well as praise for good performance, as any success motivates. Parents are in an ideal position to motivate and so help their children learn, even if they have only basic English themselves and are learning alongside their young children.

By sharing, parents can not only bring their child’s language and activities into family life, but can also influence their young children’s attitudes to language learning and other cultures. It is now generally accepted that most lifelong attitudes are formed by the age of eight or nine.

Further reading:

If you are interested in finding out more about how children learn languages we suggest the following websites:


application/pdf iconDownload Arabic version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload Bosnian version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload English version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload German version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload Greek version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload Japanese version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload Kazakh version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload Korean version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload Latvian version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload Macedonian version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload Russian version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload Spanish version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload Thai version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload Turkish version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload Ukrainian version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload Uzbek version (Login to access)
application/pdf iconDownload Vietnamese version (Login to access)
Your rating: None (126 votes)


conniey's picture

Hello, I'm writing about a situation at my daughter's school on learning English as a second language. We live in Greece and she is in second grade. The school adopts a method of transliterating the English words with Greek characters so the kids could read them more easily. Frankly, I am a bit shocked by this method. I don't think it helps the children learn to actually read the English, as I consider this method "cheating". What is your opinion about this? I doubt that the school will change their ways, but I'm on the verge of asking them to not expect this from my daughter.

Joanne Blackmore's picture
Hi, thanks for writing to us with this question.
There are many different ways of learning and teaching languages depending on the context and situation.
I'm not aware of this teaching method, but in places which use a different alphabetic script then it may be considered as a useful first step. Perhaps you could ask the school to explain how this methodology works and how the students will progress to reading in English without transliteration in the future. You could try to find out if this is part of the Greek syllabus in general or just a method used by this specific school.
I hope that helps.

Best wishes,
LearnEnglish Kids team
Zalfa's picture

Hi, I am a new user. I am a mother of a boy of 6 years old. Please, excuse me for my weak English and my long conversation but I think all details are important to better explain my situation. In Lebanon (my country), all schools teach from KG1 (preschool) the Arabic language + a foreign language that can be either the French (in most of the schools) or the English, or both (in private schools, and generally with the predominance of one language on the other, e.g. French will be all the week while English only twice a week, or conversely). As I am much fluent in French, and also I lived with my son in France, from his birth up to his age of 4 years, when I came back to Lebanon, I chose for him a school that has “French language predominance”. In the school that I chose, they teach French essentially, and they start teaching English from KG3 but only one hour/week while French language is taught every day. My son passed the KG2 and the KG3 in that school (he finished the KG3 in June 2015, and in September 2015 he will be in 1st grade). In the KG3 he learned almost all the Arabic and the French letters (how to read and to write), as well as lot of words in these two languages (the meaning of a word, how to copy it, but still don’t know how to write it by oneself). He also learned few things in English such as the numbers (up to 10), the alphabet, and some expressions (how to answer the questions: what’s your name? how old are you? how is the weather?). I am happy that my son starts learning new words at school. However, I start to be worried about having the two foreign languages taught at the same time: 1- In fact, the French and English languages are very similar: they use the same alphabet (as compared to the Arabic language which uses different one); the only difference lies in the pronunciation of the words. This makes me afraid that my son gets confused between the two languages. What do you think? 2- In addition, in French there are some fixed rules to know how to pronounce the vowels, while in English there are not (based on my little knowledge). I am afraid that this will make a barrier to my son to learn English especially when he starts to write words. Can you advise me how can I make learning the pronunciation and the writing of the words easy for him (and for me also, cause my English level is not so good; This disturbs me, cause i like to do with him some extra-exercises in english at home but I am afraid to teach him incorrectly !! can you advise me please). Actually, you mention in the article : "How young children learn English as another language", that “As English has 26 letters but on average 44 sounds (in standard English), introducing the remaining sounds is better left until children have more experience in using language and reading”, How can I learn these sounds in order to teach them to my son? Thanks a lot for your time and again, please accept my apologies for this long conversation.

Joanne Blackmore's picture

Hello and thanks for writing to us with your questions.    

I am going to try and break my answer down into a few sections to address your concerns:  

You are worried that he will be confused in learning both English and French (and Arabic).

Children are great learners of languages, especially at a young age. They soak up the language and absorb it in ways that adult learners find much more difficult. It is true that he may go through periods of mixing up words from each language or seeming to have problems separating out the grammatical rules of each. This is a natural process though and something that you don’t need to worry about too much. Children are also great at “code-switching”, switching between two or more languages. As long as there is a clear distinction for him about when and where and with whom he is supposed to be using each language he will learn to cope with this too.

You are worried about the correlation and differences between spelling and pronunciation in  French and English.

Again children generally have a “good ear” for pronunciation and much of what I have said above about children’s abilities to learn languages is true here too. We have a section on the site: which is all about the problems of spelling and pronunciation in English. Your son might first like to start with the songs in the ‘Sounds’ section:. Then you can move on to the stories in ‘Speak’ section Under all these songs and stories you will see that there are some activities to print. These help to focus on the vocabulary from the songs and stories and show the spelling rules. 
In the Speak and Spell section there is also a group of activities called ‘Tricky words’ which help to show the spelling and pronunciation of some of the more difficult spelling rules in English. There are only 9 activities here at the moment but we will be adding lots of new content to this section in the next couple of months.  

You would like to know how you can help your son with spelling and pronunciation.

From my answer above you can see that there are lots of activities on LearnEnglish Kids that you can do together with your son. You can watch the songs and stories together and print out the worksheets to give him extra writing practice. You can also print the answers too. If you would like more help with the “44 sounds” in English you can look at another British Council website TeachingEnglish which has a special chart showing all the different sounds in standard English:

You do not need to worry about learning the special symbols on the chart or trying to teach them to your son though! This is a very specialized area of learning and teaching and I am only suggesting using the chart if you want to familiarize yourself with the different sounds of English.

Finally, I would say not to worry too much. Find out what he enjoys most – listening to songs, stories, reading comics, playing word games, learning new words, writing stories etc. Focus on what he can do and not what he can’t. Do not worry about “teaching him wrong”, enjoy it as a learning experience for both of you and rest assured that, in time (and it will take time, several years in fact) your son will have the fabulous benefit of being tri-lingual!

Best wishes,
LearnEnglish Kids team

Leanvx's picture

Hi, I am a new member, I could find a lot good material, but I am not sure what/which material I should start teaching my son first as beginning stage. Therefore, I would like to ask for your help how to help my son (6 years old) to study English from this website.
He is the very active boy...!!!
Thanks a lot.

Joanne Blackmore's picture

We're happy to read that you've found useful materials on LearnEnglish Kids.
You could start with basic topics such as colours, numbers, parts of the body, food, the weather, animals etc. Search our list of topics to find activities related to these subjects:
Also consider your son's interests when choosing a topic. For example if he likes dinosaurs or fairy tales, you could use some of our activities on these subjects.
For a six year-old I would suggest you use songs, stories and simple games such as our Paint it or Label the picture games.
We have downloadable flashcards for teaching vocabulary on a wide range of subjects.
You can use them to play fun card games such as Memory.
If your son is very active, he will enjoy action games such as Simon says.
You can watch a family playing Memory and Simon says in these videos.
I hope that helps! Let us know how you get on.

Best wishes,
LearnEnglish Kids team

Vanshika Sukhija's picture

Hi ,
I am Vanshika and I live in India.I have two kids 10 and 3 yrs of age.My elders son though studying in an English medium school, is not at all fluent in English and for me the most surprising part is I myself is a PhD scholar in English and my own son doesn't talk or is least interested to converse in English.
I have brought him many English story books of his interest but he hardly reads them. Only after insisting he out bit of scold reads few pages and that too without understanding them.
Can you suggest me some of the ways to get him involved in learning English.I would be really thankful  to you if you can support me by suggesting some of the online course for him.Because I know he can only work under specified dead lines and pressure.

Joanne Blackmore's picture
Hi Vanshika,
Thanks for your comment. I think that the most important thing is to keep the learning relaxed and fun so that your son enjoys English and will be motivated to learn.
Have you read this article on 'Using books with older children and teenagers? It has lots of useful information with sections on 'getting boys to read' and 'reluctant readers'.
Graphic novel and other books which combine text and pictures are a good way to encourage reluctant readers. Also being part of the choosing process may help to motivate your son. If possible go to a local bookshop or library which has English books and let him choose what he would like to  read.
Your son might also like to read and watch some of the animated stories on our website.
I would suggest these:
He may also enjoy learning grammar with our grammar videos or writing on a subject which interests him in our Your turn section.
I hope that helps.

Best wishes,
LearnEnglish Kids team
Shao's picture

I have two kids, almost 10 and 7 years old. I'm trying to teach English to the elder one, the younger one seem a lot interested. It is easier for my eldest son although he don't speak the language. I help him with very smal text, for new words, verbs and try to use those words in every day life. They also watch cartoons in English. The elder son manage to understand more or less. But my 7 year old boy barely understand. So what to do? I'm afraid theyt might loose interest due to frustration. I myself don't speak English thoroughly. I used to but ever since I live in France, I've lost it due to lack of practice. What are your advice? Thanks a lot.

Joanne Blackmore's picture
Hi Shao,
I think that at 10 years, and especially at 7 years of age, it's important to keep the learning relaxed and fun. Make sure that the activities are not too difficult so that your 7 year-old does not feel discouraged or frustrated. Try to introduce new vocabulary through fun language games. How about making some of our crafts with your kids, giving them all the instructions in English?
It doesn't matter if your own English isn't perfect. The main thing is that you have an enthusiastic and positive attitude to the language, which your kids are sure to pick up!

You might also want to consider a language course for your kids. The British Council offers classes for young learners in Paris, Lyon and Marseille, including intensive holiday classes and English with activities. You'll find details here:

Let us know how you get on. Good luck!
Best wishes,
LearnEnglish Kids team