Second language learners have a first language

Indigenous preschool children – like all children their age – have been learning and using their first language, or ‘mother tongue’, with their family from birth.

A child’s first language is the language they speak most fully and easily. Research shows that children are best able to be proud learners of an additional language, such as SAE, when they are secure in the respect that is given to their first language by those around them, including educators.

Children learn their first language automatically by interacting with their parents or caregivers, and by watching and listening to family members as they relate to one another.

Second language learning

Second language learning is about adding languages to the language(s) somebody already speaks. And it is important that it is about additive bilingualism or bidialectalism, not replacement of L1 by L2 – an approach taken too often in the past.

Children who speak Indigenous languages as their first language are ‘second language learners’ of English. Standard Australian English will be added, as they expand their first language, by continuing to use it with their family, friends and community.

Second language learning is different to acquiring a first language. While first language acquisition happens naturally, second language learning depends very much on linguistic, social and attitudinal factors as well as on opportunities for meaningful, active and engaging second language learning.

For preschool-aged children, this should be fun and interactive with intentional, focused learning sessions.

The ELLIC app and accompanying Educator Zone resources can help to build confidence with learning SAE, by focusing attention on particular areas of meaningful words, phrases and their contexts. Play-based activities can be purposefully planned to use and expand the target SAE in the early childhood setting.


Multiple languages are good!

Australia’s prevailing monolingualism is an anomaly. Worldwide, most people are multilingual, that is, they speak more than one language. It’s the most common way to be and multilingual people and societies flourish. The ability to speak more than one language is clearly associated with:

  • cognitive benefits, such as problem solving
  • economic advantages, including employment opportunities
  • social advantages[1].

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have traditionally encouraged multilingualism, and ongoing oral cultural practices in Indigenous families tend to orient Indigenous children towards learning languages.


[1] Australia’s Language Potential, Michael G. Clyne, UNSW Press, 2005

SAE language learning

ELLIC advises learning Standard Australian English be additive for Indigenous children and indeed for all preschoolers. In other words, early childhood educators should be aware of and support any use of a child’s first language to develop and expand, while teaching (adding) SAE.

This also needs to be said given that many speakers of Indigenous languages have close family, such as grandparents or parents, who may have faced discrimination, and even punishment, for speaking their first language/s.

Early childhood educators...

Early childhood educators have a wonderful opportunity to encourage each new generation of Australian children to treasure and benefit from learning new languages and to grow up as proud participants in our multilingual society.