Early childhood educators must recognize the uniqueness of all cultures, languages, and communities by embracing the increasing cultural and linguistic diversity of our society. All classrooms should be seen as multicultural and inclusive, and promote equity by valuing and celebrating each family represented. This includes understanding the influence of multiple languages and dialects. These culturally responsive practices engage children and families through authentic home-school connections. As educators recognize and understand diverse social contexts, they are strengthening the effectiveness of instructional delivery. Academic progress takes place within the context of a child’s ecosystems and their development is maximized when these ecosystems are considered and respected. Diversity of social contexts is an asset to educators, rather than a barrier to appropriate development, when culturally responsive practices are implemented in the classroom.
Language development is influenced by exposure and influence within a broader regional and social environment. When considering our nest model, this means not only the bird itself, and the nest, but also the tree and even the forest. This illustration illuminates the continual theme that language development is complex and influenced by many factors. Language experiences build a foundation of thinking and understanding upon which knowledge can grow. Educators strategically craft language experiences which draw upon the life experiences of students and add to their understanding of the world. Language experiences that connect to the broader regional and social environment bring life into the classroom and make what is learned at school relevant and real.
4.3a Multilingual Learners
Support of the family context may also mean challenging our assumptions about what it means to support a child’s literacy. This is particularly true when it comes to working with multilingual learners. Multilingual learners are young children who are learning to speak their home language as well as at least one other language during early childhood (Castro, Espinosa, & Paez, 2011) or before the age of five (McManis, 2012). This can happen simultaneously, such as having parents or other primary figures use two languages. It can also happen successively, such as when children are exposed to and speak only one language at home in the first one or two years and then are exposed to another language in an early learning program (Genesee, 2010). English language learners (ELLs) are children whose native language is not English and who become immersed in an English-speaking environment (Halle et al., 2012). This text uses the more inclusive term multilingual learners, as it acknowledges that children may speak more than just two languages.
As infants, multilingual learners may appear to be delayed in their language development. They may produce language later and exhibit smaller vocabularies in either language (Hammer et al., 2014). Children who are exposed to more than one language may enter early learning programs exhibiting lower English literacy skills than their monolingual peers, but they catch up and reach the same skills level as those same peers by the early grades (Hammer et al., 2014). If educators focus on these deficits, they might miss the significant advantages that multilingual learners experience. Ultimately, children who are multilingual learners will acquire proficiency in multiple languages through ongoing and intentional language experiences in their home, school, and community environments (Castro, 2013). In other words, there is a long-term gain for language development.
Aside from language development, the acquisition of multiple languages has other benefits that support cognitive development overall. Children who are multilingual may have advantages in their capacity for attention control while working on linguistic tasks and nonverbal tasks (Barac et al., 2014). Access to working memory seems to also be enhanced, as well as a subsequent gain in executive function tasks such as planning, rule acquisition, and cognitive flexibility (Castro, 2013). It has also been suggested that bilingual children demonstrate heightened creativity and divergent thinking, probably because they are compelled to switch between two languages (Castro, 2013). Overall, there is evidence that exposure to multiple languages yields benefits for cognitive development that can be translated to other areas besides literacy.
Additionally, understanding multilingual learners requires understanding their home context. Blank (1998) suggests that children who speak more than one language might be more likely to live in homes with multiple relatives. Castro (2013) points out that while some may perceive living with multiple family members to be detrimental because of perceived crowded living situations, it is actually beneficial as children gain greater exposure to enriched language opportunities and cultural experiences. These rich opportunities to observe and participate in family language help to preserve and cement the dialogical skills that maintain it. Children who move away from using their home language to using English exclusively, tend to lose their ability to communicate in the first language and start to prefer English (Espinoza, 2013). This may depress academic achievement in English (Espinoza, 2013) and also may result in cultural loss as children lose the ability to communicate with extended family members who speak the home language.
Teachers can support families, even if they do not speak the home language, by encouraging families to continue to support the home language. A simple example of supporting multilingual learners and their home language would include making sure to pronounce a child’s name correctly (Fenner & Snyder, 2021). Research suggests that there are multiple long-term benefits to promoting literacy skills in the child’s home language, as well as English (Espinoza, 2013). Below is a chart with suggestions for ways that teachers can support English Language Development and the home language.
- Meet with families and gather important information about the child and family
- Add items to the classroom environment that represent the cultures, languages, and practices of the children
- Include books and materials that represent each family and culture in an authentic way
- Give the parents’ opportunities to introduce key vocabulary words in the home language
- Read stories in the classroom that represent each family
- Use pictures, objects, and experiences to demonstrate the meaning of words and concepts
- Use visual cues, physical gestures, and signals
Adapted from: Espinoza, L. (2013). PreK-3rd: Challenging Common Myths about Dual Language Learners. An update to the Seminal 2008 Report. Foundation for Child Development Policy to Action Brief. No. 10.
Pause and Consider: Home Language and Educator Perspectives
Read the two vignettes provided below and consider the different stances the two early childhood educators illustrate.
Anika’s brother regularly picks her up from school in the afternoon. On this particular day, Anika is eager to tell her brother all about the happenings of the day. She turns to him and speaking in Hindi says, “aaj hamane beej lagae aur yah bade phoolon mein vikasit hoga.” (Today we planted seeds and they will grow into big flowers.) Ms. Osborne overhears the conversation and says to Anika’s brother, “Anika really needs to be working on her English.”
Hugo’s dad requested to have a parent conference with Ms. Miller concerning Hugo’s language development. Mr. Lopez is concerned that Hugo is not picking up English as quickly as he had hoped and he wants to know what to do. Ms. Miller explains that it is common to have a silent period while learning a new language and the child is learning to receive the language before producing it. Mr. Lopez suggests he will start speaking only English at home. Ms. Miller quickly responds and assures Mr. Lopez that he should continue to use the home language.
Can you think of a time when you encountered a situation that allowed you to supportively affirm a child’s home language?
After watching this delightful Sesame Street video, what are the most important points of the video? Can you think of any similar experiences that have happened to you or someone you know?
Explore this wonderful resource! Select and describe 3 of the 10 examples you feel are the most interesting or valuable.