Teaching multiple languages to under fives

Blog Image for article Teaching multiple languages to under fives

Your child’s mother tongue enables them to communicate, learn, socialise and make sense of the world, and if you’re fortunate enough to know two (or more) languages, then you’re encouraged to share them with your little linguist.

Bilingualism and multilingualism have great benefits for under fives, and there are lots of ways for parents and educators to support language learning in the early years.

To see how under fives can become bilingual and biliterate (or multilingual and multiliterate), we spoke with Professor Paola Escudero.

Paola is a Professor in Linguistics at the MARCS Institute for Brain, Behaviour and Development, Western Sydney University, and she’s also Chief Investigator at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.

This means she’s very well placed to explain how young children learn a language, or three!

Thanks for your time, Paola. You’ve done lots of research into speech and visual processing by babies and young children who speak one or more languages.

How do under fives learn words and speech, and what can parents and educators do to help them build foundational language skills?

Young children learn through listening to their care-givers, and the way we speak to them matters.

‘Baby-talk’ (otherwise known as infant-directed-speech or child-directed-speech) is the special way we have to talk to babies, and the more we talk to them, the more they connect to us and their speech. This special way of talking to babies, which mums naturally use, involves a care-giver:

  • Highlighting differences between sounds
  • Including many repetitions of the same words
  • Using slow tempo and high pitch
  • Speaking in shorter sentences
  • Giving loads of smiles, and
  • Using very positive emotion.

Reading, rhyming, singing and responding to babies’ sounds as much as possible during all routine activities, and using this naturally engaging speech directed to infants and children, ensures that all foundational language skills emerge quickly and steadily from the very first months through to the first years of life.

At the MARCS BabyLab, we study the characteristics of ‘baby-talk’ and how it influences language learning in under fives. If you’d like more information or want to participate in our research, please visit our website and register here.

How do children benefit from learning more than one language?

Childhood multilingualism has a myriad of benefits, including:

  • Socio-cultural benefits. When children speak another language, they gain access to the views and perspective associated with it. This teaches children that there are different ways of thinking, expressing feelings and experiencing the world.
  • Interpersonal benefits. Multilingualism links children with family, friends and the wider community, which is important for youngsters’ wellbeing and development.
  • Cognitive benefits. Research shows that multilingualism helps with children’s attention control, problem-solving and executive function. It promotes cognitive flexibility and creative-thinking, and multilingualism has been linked with better maths skills and heightened logic.
  • Future benefits. Knowing more than one language can make travel easier, encourage international friendships and improve a person’s career prospects. Research also suggests that it may delay the onset of dementia in later life.

If you’d like to know more about the benefits, please have a look at this MARCS BabyLab webinar (featuring myself and colleagues who are experts in child development and multilingualism).

How can educators support under fives to become bilingual or multilingual?

The best way to promote bilingualism and multilingualism in young children is to facilitate home language or foreign language exposure at early learning centres.

A very successful way to do this is through educators in an early learning centre who speak the home languages.

As mentioned above, we speak to babies in a naturally enhanced way, and that naturalness can only be achieved if we are fluent in the language we are using. It’s very difficult to express positive emotion, repeat words, sing, rhyme and read using infant- or child-directed speech if we are not fluent in a language.

Including native speakers or fluent speakers of some of the languages that are spoken at the children’s homes would make this natural use of a language other than English much easier.

According to the last Census, more than 30 per cent of Australians speak a language other than English at home.

Many early learning educators also speak languages other than English at home, they simply need to combine their educational practice with a delivery in their home language alongside English.

Our Little Multilingual Minds program has been carefully crafted to help educators and early learning centres unravel their potential to celebrate and fulfil bilingual and multilingual early learning.

We think that early learning educators’ professional development in this area can then have a multiplying effect to involve parents and members of the community, as they listen more and better to their children’s teachers.

What is biliteracy and multiliteracy, and why is it important for a child’s early development and later life?

Biliteracy and multiliteracy refers to the use of different writing systems.

For multilingualism to continue through the lifespan, children not only need to use their languages in as many contexts as possible outside of their homes, but they also need to be able to see their languages represented in written form.

When parents read to their children in their many languages, they show them that information can come in different symbols, which enhances their capacity to connect sounds to symbols, objects and written forms.

Biliteracy and multiliteracy allows for cognitive skills that are better prepared for schooling. Research shows that children who learn to write in languages with more transparent connections between sound and orthography (such as Greek, Spanish and Dutch) than English are better able to decode and learn to write in English than children who are only exposed to English writing.

Biliteracy and multiliteracy opens doors to the rich cultures of many countries and has an exponential effect on the levels of empathy, social development in general, and how much a child can learn about the world’s diversity in original sources.

We spend most of our lives reading and writing throughout our school years and beyond. Imagine how much more we could learn, and how many more diverse viewpoints we could experience, if we’re able to read books and articles in multiple languages!

What are some practical ways for educators to promote biliteracy and multiliteracy in the early learning setting?

Reading books in children’s home languages and using those languages in daily routines and activities is great, but most importantly, educators need to incorporate those languages in their teaching practice.

A home language should be used in similar contexts and learning experiences as English for the languages to be seen as an asset and a source of learning, rather than using just a few words or reading short stories in a tokenistic way.

Professional development for educators who are fluent in the specific languages children speak at home is the best way to do this.

Ideally, a bilingual program can be started where the early learning setting chooses to facilitate and support one or two languages within the centre.

Our Little Multilingual Minds program can help services to operationalise a commitment to support home languages, and playgroups can also commit to multiliteracy and multilingualism.

For instance, I’ve had very fruitful conversations with, and delivered a workshop for, Paint the Town READ (PTTR), an early literacy organisation that encourages people to read with children from birth, so they start school ready to learn.

PTTR runs playgroups, and is connected with early learning centres, and I explained to them that they could go a step beyond supporting spoken multilingualism, and encourage parents and playgroup facilitators to read and write in the many languages that they support.

We’re currently talking about ways to include literacy and numeracy in their delivery of multilingual learning and hope to start a Little Multilingual Minds partnership with them in the near future.

Can other early learning services get involved with the Little Multilingual Minds program?

Yes! We’re looking for more services to work with, so encourage parents to tell their centre directors or educators about the program. Our contact details are here and we’d be delighted to help services implement bilingual and biliterate support in their setting anywhere in Australia.

Our ultimate goal is to empower Australians to embrace this country’s rich linguistic diversity to change the monolingual mindset to a multilingual and multicultural view, which supports greater empathy, social awareness, and a better ability to understand and know about the world.


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