2023 Highlights Report

Language Development in Newcomer Children and Youth

Newcomer children and youth must acquire the language and literacy skills of their host countries in order to integrate socially, participate at school, and gain access to services and employment. At the same time, it is important that they maintain and grow their home languages as this provides a sense of belonging with their families and community members. Children and youth with refugee experience often face additional challenges due to interrupted schooling and trauma.

Language and Literacy Development among Syrian Refugee Children

In a recent study of Syrian refugee children aged 6-13, 14% could not read English and over half of the children who took part in the study did not have reading skills in Arabic. 

Older children (aged 10-13) experienced more challenges in their English language learning because they began learning English at a later age and the demands on language were greater in higher grades. However, the older group outperformed the younger group (aged 6-9) in Arabic, likely because they had had more time and opportunities to gain language and literacy skills in Arabic.

Children who had experienced interrupted schooling had often received more education in English after their arrival in Canada than they had in Arabic. They also spent significantly more time reading and writing in English than Arabic, which could reflect cultural practices that emphasize oral traditions.

Children with refugee backgrounds followed similar but delayed developmental paths compared to less vulnerable populations. At the same time, these children displayed resilience as they were able to continue learning English despite adverse factors such as interrupted schooling and lack of exposure to English in their home environments.

Low levels of English and Arabic language and literacy skills are likely caused by a number of factors, including the amount of exposure to each language, socioeconomic status, parent education, and the amount of diverse and complex language input and output that children experience (e.g., print and audiovisual media, socialization, etc.). Many children in the study also showed signs of trauma from their experiences of war and the migration experience, which may impact their language development. The children in this study had lived in Canada for less than 3 years at the time of testing.

“[C]hildren have these different reactions to trauma and what we found is that many of the children we were working with were very, very quiet especially in new spaces, so trying to encourage them to just communicate and use their voice and that using their voice in their home language was just great …  [W]e find that, that also has impacts on parents feeling like, oh, okay, my home language is valued too. It’s something, it is an asset and it’s something that can help my children learn rather than thinking, oh, well, that’s something we need to put aside here and ignore.” – Dr. Andrea MacLeod, Policy Matters – School Supports for Youth

Home Language Use among Newcomer Children

One in five newcomer children under the age of 13 live in linguistically isolated families. Linguistically isolated families refers to those families who do not use English and/or French regularly. Studies have shown that children with linguistically isolated foreign-born mothers have the lowest cognitive development at age 24 months, while young immigrant children do less well than their native-born counterparts on vocabulary tests when the host country language is not spoken at home.

The exposure of young children to Canada’s two official languages (English or French) at home is affected by multiple factors including the family’s socio-economic status, parents’ education levels, parents’ ages upon arrival, parents’ employment status, the region or city in which they live, and whether they have one or more grandparents present in the home. For example, children who have one parent with less than a high school education are at the greatest risk of linguistic isolation. Children with a parent who entered through refugee or through family reunification classes also have a relatively higher risk of linguistic isolation.

Despite the risks of linguistic isolation at home, many studies show the importance of newcomer children maintaining their home language. Learning the language their parents and other family members speak can help newcomer children feel a greater sense of belonging and connection to their family and their cultural identity.

“[W]e’re educating our children and preparing them for their future and that needs to include also that home language knowledge that is part of their future.” – Dr. Andrea MacLeod, Policy Matters – School Supports for Youth


Chen and colleagues “Syrian Refugee Children’s Language and Literacy Development in English and Arabic” (2022)
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Boyd and Dubash “Family Language Contexts of Migrant Children” (2022)
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Al Janaideh, R., Gottardo, A., Tibi, S., Paradis, J., & Chen, X. (2020). The role of word reading and oral language skills in reading comprehension in Syrian refugee children. Applied Psycholinguistics, 41(6), 1283-1304. doi:10.1017/S0142716420000284

Language and Literacy Development of Syrian Refugee Children

Researchers: Xi (Becky) Chen1, Redab Al Janaideh1, Kathleen Hipfner-Boucher1, Abeer Asli-Badarneh2, and Elinor Saiegh Haddad2

Affiliations: University of Toronto1, Bar-Ilan University, Israel2, University of Alberta3

This study looked at English and Arabic language and literacy development in 115 Syrian children with refugee experience, aged 6 to 13, who had recently resettled in Canada. It sought to understand differences in language and literacy development between younger and older children and validate the Simple View of Reading (SVR) model in both languages.

Family Contexts of Migrant Children: Language and Other Socioeconomic Inequalities

Researchers: Monica Boyd1 and Soli Dubash1

Affiliation: University of Toronto1

Using 2016 census data, this research explored the prevalence and probability of linguistic isolation among newcomer children aged 0-12 residing in Canadian census metropolitan areas.  Linguistic isolation occurs when none of the family members aged 14 and older regularly use English and/or French. The study looked at individual, meso-, and macro-level factors influencing linguistic isolation; and the affects of linguistic isolation on children’s use of French and/or English in the home.