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August 15, 2018

Multilingual Learning — Many Paths to Language Skills

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Families Support Multilingual Learners in Many Ways

Mario lives in Bloomington, Indiana, and will be three years old in October. He speaks mostly English when he’s at child care or with his family. But he says “buscala!” when he’s playing with his Buela’s (or grandmother’s) dog.

Tabitha reads this book about a flying grandmother with Mario to support his Spanish language skills.

Like many bilingual learners, Mario’s words are shaped by the people that spend time caring for him. Mario’s mom, Tabitha, grew up in Spencer, Indiana, and his dad, Rainaldo, grew up in Venezuela. Together, they teach Mario the words he needs to communicate his needs. Mario can say mommy and daddy, hungry, water and hurt. When he’s in the care of his English-speaking providers, they can understand what he needs.

“I think Mario understands Spanish when he is spoken to. He responds and knows a few words in Spanish,” says Tabitha, who learned to speak Spanish as an adult. Reinaldo uses both languages. Little Mario’s main chance to hear just Spanish happens when Reinaldo’s parents visit.

Grandparents can play a key role in helping with language skills. The time many children spend with their grandparents is when they hear non-English languages the most.

Persephone and Camilla are nine months old. At home, they hear English and Spanish when their parents Samantha and Borzou speak to them. Their grandparents — Borzou’s parents — are from Iran. So, the babies hear Farsi whenever their grandparents visit.

“My grandchildren are far from me, and it is not easy,” says Mahshid from Evansville, Indiana. Meanwhile, her twin grandchildren live in Denver, Colorado, with Borzou and Samantha. “My daughter-in-law speaks Spanish to them, but my son doesn’t speak enough Farsi to them.”

To help her grandchildren learn Farsi, Mahshid sends them books and music. She also only speaks Farsi to them when she visits.

Although she is not sure that Persephone and Camilla will grow up to be fluent in Farsi, Mahshid believes what matters most is that they can understand and connect to the language.

“When I see my grandchildren, I tell them I love them. It is important to me that I can express my feelings to them. That is what is important.”

This consistent exposure to Farsi and Spanish will help Mario, Persephone and Camilla expand their language skills. Even after they start school and English becomes their main language for communicating, their minds will have learned sounds and words they can build upon later in life.

“Singers of Happy Children Songs” music are some of the tools mamani Mahshid provides to support her grandchildren in learning Farsi.

Children raised in homes where two or more languages are spoken have an easier time learning multiple languages. But being fully bilingual doesn’t happen naturally. It takes some work and effort. To grow literacy and a rich vocabulary, families must nurture language learning throughout the child’s early learning years.

Tips for supporting bilingual learning:
  • Give your child an opportunity for balanced language learning. Take time to ask and answer questions in different languages.
  • Find multilingual books and stories. When you read them together, you support idea building and imagination.
  • Listen to music with your little learner so they can hear a variety of sounds.
  • Assign a time of the day to practice a different language. That way, it becomes a habit to speak it daily.
  • Find places or people outside of the home where children can support their learning while building relationships.

Want to share this information with your child care provider? Share this provider-facing post with them.

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