Recognizing and supporting the differing needs of the children in our care is an important part of our work as ECE professionals. Each child we encounter brings a unique combination of strengths, abilities, experiences, and linguistic and cultural backgrounds. As educators, we want to learn as much as we can about the children in our care so that we can design an inclusive learning space and curriculum that promotes healthy development for all children.
This article offers ideas and opportunities for helping dual language learners thrive in your early learning program.
Myths & Facts about Dual Language Learners
There are many common misconceptions about the needs and linguistic development of dual language learners. Recognizing these misconceptions can help us to more effectively support the learning needs of children who are developing verbal skills in more than one language. Below, you’ll find some false assumptions about dual language learning and how these assumptions compare with what research results actually tell us.
Myth #1: When children grow up learning multiple languages, their linguistic development is often delayed. Speaking in their native language can inhibit their ability to learn a second language.
Fact: There is actually no evidence to suggest that learning two languages can negatively impact development for dual language learners. In fact, a report from the Foundation for Child Development points to evidence that bilingualism in early childhood is associated with long-term benefits in important areas like cognitive, academic, and social-emotional skill development.
Myth #2: In order to support dual language learners, ECE professionals should be able to understand and use both languages.
Fact: A study from the National Academy of Science explains that all teachers “can learn and implement strategies that systematically introduce English during the infant, toddler, and preschool years while simultaneously promoting maintenance of the home language…Not all teachers can teach in all languages, but all teachers can learn specific strategies that support the maintenance of all languages.”
Myth #3: When teachers and parents communicate with children in their native language, it interferes with the child’s ability to learn a second language.
Fact: Research tells us that exposure to two languages does not negatively impact a child’s ability to learn either of those languages. Any time adults talk with a child, they are sparking that child’s language development. That type of nurturing, interactive conversation is likely to be more frequent and thus more beneficial when adults use the language that is most comfortable for them.
An article from First 5 California explains that “children are born with the ability to identify sounds from every language, and as they grow, their skills narrow to focus on the language(s) they hear most often. Learning more than one language at the same time is not confusing to young children. Rather, it helps them develop multiple, but inter-related, language systems.”
Additional Bilingual Learning Benefits
There is substantial research to suggest that bilingualism has many benefits for young children. An article titled, Bilingual from Birth, ZERO TO THREE explains that bilingual children are likely to have better working memories and stronger executive functioning skills when compared to children who speak only one language.
How to Create a Welcoming Dual Language Learner Environment
Karen Hernandez-Rojas is an ECE professional who works as an early childhood educator and early learning center director in San Mateo County, where she has the opportunity to support children from a variety of backgrounds, including many dual language learners. Ms. Hernandez-Rojas shared her knowledge and experience with Good2Know Network: “The way that we can create an effective learning environment for dual language learners or emergent bilinguals is to provide our children with a variety of different opportunities for learning through play. These play-based activities should be simple and intentional, and should incorporate words from the second language.”
Karen Hernandez-Rojas describes additional ways to support and include dual language learners in early learning settings:
Ask parents to share some common words that their child uses in their home language. This invites parents to participate in their child’s learning, and ensures continuity between learning at home and learning in the classroom. Some words that work well include mommy, daddy, food/hungry, water/thirsty, nap/tired, diaper/toilet, or any other words that are commonly used in the family’s home.
Create visual schedules. It can be challenging for children who are new to your program to follow along with the daily routine while they are still getting comfortable with the English language. Simple picture cards, labeled in both English and the home language, can show children, visually, what the schedule for the day looks like. These help communicate the flow of the day to the child, while also supporting the child’s vocabulary in both languages.
Incorporate bilingual books and songs into your curriculum. When children hear and see their home language incorporated and represented in the classroom, it helps them to know that they are welcome, seen, and valued in the community. You can ask families about the songs they enjoy at home, or look up popular songs and play them in different languages. Find books in the child’s home language or books with stories that include multiple languages. Books without words offer another wonderful learning experience, by giving you an opportunity to invite children to use their own words, in either language, to help you tell the story.