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Multilingual Preschoolers

Young children are increasingly linguistically diverse. How can early childhood educators provide a safe, nurturing environment?
illustration of a lemon next to the word "lemon" in many languages

It’s amazing how young children learn to converse with others. They have to not only internalize grammar and vocabulary, but also develop an understanding of culture: how to take turns in a conversation, who to talk to, and how to narrate a story.

For dual language learners (DLLs) — children under the age of 5 with a home language other than English — that process can be complex. These young children must constantly navigate between two languages and cultures, while learning the rules of both. And while the benefits of multilingualism are clear, these learners they may be excluded or teased because of their differences, which can hinder their development.

As linguistic diversity skyrockets worldwide, early childhood educators need to be prepared to help DLL students meet and overcome these unique challenges. Here, we offer insights from Paola Uccelli, an expert in literacy, linguistics, and bilingual education, on how to create environments that help DLL students and their families thrive.

The Diversity of Languages in Early Education

“Early education settings need to be places where DLLs and their families know that they have the ‘right to speak,’ that they will be heard and responded to with interest and respect,” says Uccelli, who is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. However, these high-quality, culturally and linguistically responsive early childhood programs can be difficult to find.

“Code-mixing,” or combining different languages in a single sentence, is not a sign of a developmental delay. Because DLLs are learning two languages at once, they often only know certain words in one language.

Three out of ten children in Head Start programs come from families whose primary language is something other than English, and English learner populations are growing throughout the country. But few early childhood educators are fluent in more than one language, and few receive training in cultural and linguistic diversity.

Today’s population of DLLs also speak such an array of languages that even bilingual or bilingual-specializing educators may have no context for their students’ languages.

And despite good intentions, peers and teachers often make assumptions about DLLs and their families based on how they speak, unfairly pegging their intelligence or personalities.

Three Key Lessons for Early Educators

To create supportive classrooms, educators need to hold on to several basic ideas about young children who are multilingual.

  • “Code-mixing,” or combining different languages in a single sentence, is not a sign of a developmental delay. Because DLLs are learning two languages at once, they often only know certain words in one language. (Even as they grow older, some may have strengths in certain languages — for example, being able to pray only in Spanish, and read only in English.) At early ages, mixing the two languages to convey a point is normal.
  • Similarly, language development is not delayed because these students are learning more than one language at the same time. Monolingual and bilingual children learn words at the same rate. In fact, bilingualism has been shown to confer advantages: It’s related to enhanced executive control, social perspective taking, and metalinguistic awareness.
  • If parents have limited English skills, don’t encourage them to use English at home with their children. Rather than boost their children’s English, this can instead lead to stilted, superficial conversations that don’t provide the serve-and-return stimulation that aides language development. The most important part of parent-child communication is the quality of the interaction, regardless of the language.

Set up small groups that include both English-only students and DLLs, to ensure inclusion. Model the way English-only students can communicate effectively with their peers.

Fostering Inclusivity and Growth

Fostering a diversity-rich, inclusive environment is key, Uccelli says. Early learning spaces should create conditions for children to talk about differences and learn to function in a multicultural society. Educators should support English development and value a child’s home language, simultaneously.

For Program Leaders:

  • Write a mission statement that explicitly values language diversity and inclusion.
  • Wherever possible, hire staff who understand bilingual development and assessment, have experience working with diverse families, or speak the home language of children in your program.
  • Support staff in gaining these skills, and offer professional development in areas of culture, language, and diversity.
  • Compile books, audio, and digital materials in the home languages of your students. Feature these assets prominently throughout your classrooms.

For Teachers or Caregivers in Classrooms:

  • Encourage children to speak their home languages in safe settings, such as with peers or working one-on-one with teachers. Avoid asking them to speak publicly in front of a group if they’re not comfortable doing so.
  • Set up small groups that include both English-only students and DLLs, to ensure inclusion. Explain to English-only students that DLL students are still learning, and model the way they can communicate effectively with their peers.
  • Learn key words or phrases in DLLs’ home languages, and sing songs as a class in those languages, too. Don’t just use a child’s home language for discipline; use it for fun and learning.
  • Provide “language-free” safe havens, which may provide DLLs with a much-needed break. Let children play without talking, using blocks, clay, or puzzles, etc.
  • Pay attention and respond to children when they speak to you in their home language, even if you don’t understand their words.
  • Adjust your language to a children’s level of English development. If a child is still in early phases of learning English, then keep messages simple, repeat important words, and use gestures to support what you’re saying. Where possible, use his home language, too.
  • Invite multilingual families to volunteer in your classroom and use their home language, and ask them to write labels for items in your classroom in their child’s home language.

Research-to-Practice Connections for Early Education

Paola Uccelli shared practices around bilingual identity at a recent convening of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, which regularly convenes a professional learning academy to support the development of early education leaders. Learn more about attending a convening.

Illustration: Wilhelmina Peragine


Schools serve as a key point of welcome for immigrant and refugee children in America, but politics and changing demographics are complicating how we assist these newcomers. In a special series, we look at the strategies and practices that best support newcomer students and their families. Read more in Welcoming Newcomers.

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