Supporting multilingual children: “It takes a village”

Published on Tuesday, 17 August 2021
Last updated on Monday, 16 August 2021

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Within twenty-first century Aotearoa New Zealand there are over 200 spoken languages.  The Census indicated that just over 18 per cent of the population identified themselves as being multilingual speakers with more than one language near fluently.

Amongst these, te reo Māori, Samoan, Hindi, Northern Chinese (including Mandarin), French and Yue (Cantonese) were identified as being the most common languages spoken.

This poses opportunities and challenges for early childhood educators, especially those who only speak English.

Educators who only speak English, or who do not know the languages their children speak, can embrace this challenge by positioning themselves as learners. This allows educators to improve teaching through continuous learning and opens them to exploring the linguistic and cultural practices of their children and families.

To share language and encourage the development of multilingual children, educators need to feel prepared with the knowledge, skills, teaching strategies and pedagogy to support and create a rich multilingual environment.

If your early education centre requires additional support consider options such as professional development, bringing in experts or a multilingual educator, technology and by bringing families into the classroom.

Engaging with families is important and useful. They are a rich source of cultural and linguistic knowledge, and collaboration with parents and families establishes a sense of community.

They offer valuable information about their child to help educators support the child’s home languages and English language development.

Take to time to reflect and review on family engagement practices to ensure they provide opportunities for meaningful, ongoing, two-way communication.

Here are some considerations:

  • Continually seek input from families about their language goals, hopes, fears, and/or concerns
  • Build trust and respect by getting to know individual families and their language and cultural practices
  • Share information with families about the benefits of multilingualism and clarify questions or concerns they may have
  • Have regular, ongoing conversations with families about their children’s language development and learning across the different settings children navigate (such as the home, ECE setting)
  • Develop a vision in collaboration with families on how your program will promote cultural and linguistic diversity
  • Create welcoming spaces where families can network with other families that share common goals (for example, bilingualism and multilingualism) and/or concerns

Include practices such as welcoming families in their home language daily, inviting family members into the classroom, sharing music and songs from home languages, and making the child’s home language visible in the environment.

Unfortunately, research has shown that in some classrooms with culturally and linguistically diverse learners, interactions between educators and children are often in the form of giving and receiving directions, with limited opportunities for children to practice producing multiword sentences.

Conversations between educators and children facilitate language learning by providing children with models for use of language and responsive communication.

To encourage multilingual children to join classroom conversations, Assistant Professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, Elizabeth Chapman De Sousa, published an article offering the following five strategies that capitalise on the social and interactive nature of early childhood classrooms.

1. Use children’s home languages as a resource

Get help from family members by inviting them to come teach you and the class important words; seek recommendations on literature and songs in their languages. Additionally, remember that it is always possible to respond to children’s communications, regardless of whether or not you speak the same language. You can do this with body language and other ways to communicate, such as using pictures and objects.

Responding to children’s multilingual contributions sends the message that diversity is valued in your classroom. It shows multilingual children they have important ideas and questions to contribute, and that all forms of communication are of value.

2. Pair conversations with joint activities

There are several reasons why joint activities in small groups promote conversation: a shared activity gives participants a common subject to talk about; the tools or props related to the activity aid in communication; and educators can tailor the activity and, based on the interests of the children participating, guide the conversation, thereby increasing the children’s motivation and likelihood that they will share their ideas.

Use relevant and meaningful objects – such as paintbrushes, puppets, spoons, and pictures – and invite multilingual children to join activities. Using an object, teachers can couple an invitation with a question. During the activity, the children could see the topic of conversation and could contribute nonverbally by pointing to or moving the object – instead of trying to rely solely on words. This supports the children’s participation and conceptual development, and their motivation to communicate and complete the task.

3. Participate in activities

By participating in activities with the children for an extended period of time, educators provide responsive assistance as compared with briefly visiting groups or engaging children in a whole group setting. Joining activities increases opportunities for educators and children to provide feedback to one another, which is essential to the learning process (DiGiacomo & Gutiérrez 2016).  Educators can listen to, assess, and assist children’s developing conceptual and linguistic understandings.

Children’s responses when teachers paint, draw, or cook along with them can be surprising. Participating in activities with children naturally leads to modelling. It encourages more participation and helps teachers ask more open-ended and contextualised questions than when overseeing from the sidelines or just dropping in to ask questions.

Multilingual children tend to watch their teachers and peers for nonverbal cues about what they are supposed to be doing and saying.

4. Use small groups

Small group settings of no more than six, can help make an activity more conversational, relieving some of the pressure children may feel when in a whole group setting or one-on-one with an educator. Also, peer modelling and support can promote multilingual children’s language development and engagement (Ohta 2000). Things like culture, family norms, personal preferences, and gender can influence how children engage in conversation. Experiment with the seating and notice ways you can adjust placement to encourage multilingual children’s engagement.

Sometimes it can help to have multiple children in the group who speak the same home language so they can support one another’s conceptual understanding through use of their familiar language. At other times, it may be helpful to include peers with more advanced English.

5. Respond to children’s contributions

Responding to children’s contributions promotes engagement and learning. Being responsive ensures teachers build on children’s thinking and communicates that the teachers value children’s ideas, questions, and concerns. One way to study your responsiveness to multilingual children is to have a colleague videotape your interactions. Notice your facial expressions, gestures, eye contact, and tone of voice as you engage with the multilingual children.

References and further reading:

WIDA: Promoting Equity for Young Multilingual Children and Their Families

NAEYC: Five tips for engaging multilingual children in conversation Supporting bilingual children in childcare

Too small to fail: The benefits of being bilingual

He Kupu: Looking back to move forward: Supporting second language learning in Aotearoa New Zealand

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