Our first words: language development and bilingualism

Frances Lyons, Assistant Director at the National Children’s Bureau, takes inspiration on early language development from an event in Nottingham.

Frances Lyons

It was both refreshing and rewarding to take time out of a busy schedule to attend Small Steps Big Changes’ (SSBC) recent event on speech, language and communication (SLC) in early childhood.

Improving children’s development in this area is a core focus of the A Better Start Programme and within SSBC they have an extensive support offer of 12 core programmes dedicated to SLC and a further six programmes with a built-in SLC element. SSBC Director, Karla Capstick, told us how their evaluation is really starting to show strong improvements in communication skills and reading behaviours among young children and their families.

We had the privilege of hearing from Kym Scott, an early years consultant and trainer for over 30 years, about the importance of interactions for boosting language development. I was reminded of that familiar phrase ‘serve and return’ which never fails to communicate how critical back-and-forth listening and responding is to children’s development. We were reminded that it’s quality rather than quantity that makes the difference – high quality conversations combined with high quality relationships with children.

Kym emphasised the importance of extending vocabulary, adding to the interactions, letting the child lead the way and left us with some clear, simple, and powerful advice:


Inspired and keen to keep learning, with the click of a button I was transported to a fabulous interactive workshop on dispelling myths and supporting good practice with children with English as an Additional Language. The session was delivered by Amy McDonald, SSBC Research and Learning Officer, Julia Harris, Speech and Language Therapist - Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust, and Naseem Akhtar, Bilingual Co-worker- Nottinghamshire Healthcare NHS Trust (who speaks no less than 5 languages!)

We addressed the common misperception that learning a second language can be confusing and that children hearing and speaking more than one language are more likely to have speech and language difficulties. The reality is that a child exposed to more than one language is no more likely and no less likely than other children to have language difficulties. As with all children, early identification of difficulties is critical, and the team stressed the importance of assessing and monitoring a child’s development in both or all languages.

We learned about the positive effects of bilingualism on children’s progress - their cognitive flexibility, working memory and attention as well as the four early stages in bilingual learning:

  1. Children use the home language in the English-speaking setting
  2. Children enter a silent period - BUT ARE STILL ACTIVEY LISTENING AND LEARNING
  3. Children begin to go public! Repeating back and using individual words and phrases in the new language
  4. Children begin to develop productive use of the second language

The team shared some top tips for practitioners including:

  • Sharing some everyday words in the child’s home language with staff in the setting
  • Having familiar toys and books available in the child’s home language
  • Using visual cues to support children’s understanding
  • Working closely with families to make it a shared experience

The session closed with a focus on parents whose biggest concern is feeling that they need to communicate in English at home with their children. The team highlighted that all the evidence points to the contrary and called on us to reassure parents that learning at home in their home language provides the necessary building blocks for additional language learning.

About A Better Start

A Better Start is a ten-year (2015-2025), £215 million programme set-up by The National Lottery Community Fund, the largest funder of community activity in the UK. Five A Better Start partnerships based in Blackpool, Bradford, Lambeth, Nottingham and Southend are supporting families to give their babies and very young children the best possible start in life. Working with local parents, the A Better Start partnerships are developing and testing ways to improve their children’s diet and nutrition, social and emotional development, and speech, language and communication.

The work of the programme is grounded in scientific evidence and research. A Better Start is place-based and enabling systems change. It aims to improve the way that organisations work together and with families to shift attitudes and spending towards preventing problems that can start in early life. It is one of five major programmes set up by The National Lottery Community Fund to test and learn from new approaches to designing services which aim to make people’s lives healthier and happier

The National Children’s Bureau is coordinating an ambitious programme of shared learning for A Better Start, disseminating the partnerships’ experiences in creating innovative services far and wide, so that others working in early childhood development or place-based systems change can benefit.

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