Australia is a diverse society: 26% of the population were born overseas, a further 20% have at least one parent born overseas and 19% speak a language other than English at home. Paediatricians are frequently involved in the assessment and management of non-English-speaking-background children with developmental delay, disability or learning issues. Despite the diversity of our patient population, information on how children learn additional or later languages is remarkably absent in paediatric training. An understanding of second language acquisition is essential to provide appropriate advice to this patient group. It takes a long time (5 years or more) for any student to develop academic competency in a second language, even a student who has received adequate prior schooling in their first language. Refugee students are doubly disadvantaged as they frequently have limited or interrupted prior schooling, and many are unable to read and write in their first language. We review the evidence on second language acquisition during childhood, describe support for English language learners within the Australian education system, consider refugee-background students as a special risk group and address common misconceptions about how children learn English as an additional language.