Learning Language Learners

Question: I’m a Head Start teacher, and my class this year has more children than ever who don’t speak much or any English. It’s hard for them to learn the rules or even make friends, and I worry that they will still be behind once they start kindergarten. What can I do to help them learn English faster? It’s also hard to engage with their parents, because even with the ones who do speak some English there are often still communication or cultural barriers.

Answer: It’s no surprise that you’re seeing this trend in your class; a recent national survey indicates that nearly a third of children in Head Start programs across the country are dual language learners, or DLLs. Teachers (and parents) sometimes worry that children who start school – preschool or kindergarten — without knowing English will be at a social and educational disadvantage compared to their native-speaking peers. The good news is that research has shown that bilingual children end up with language skills that are as good or better than those of their single-language peers. It turns out that knowing more than one language is actually good for your brain!

And the easiest time to learn a new language, of course, is in the first few years of life. So the best way you can help your dual-language learners is to fully and consciously support their mastery of BOTH languages. Encourage them to communicate however they feel comfortable; after all, many young children are not yet truly fluent in any language, and communicate through body language, facial expression, and other nonverbal means. Demonstrate through your actions that even if you don’t speak the same language they do, you want to communicate with them, you value what they have to say and will work with them to make the process less frustrating.

This spirit of inclusiveness goes beyond having shelf labels in Spanish, or a few “multicultural” books on the shelf. Think about walking into a classroom in a foreign country. What are some things that might help you feel more comfortable, or at home? Include family pictures, as well as images, music, and food from their individual cultures. This is a great opportunity to involve families by asking them for contributions of particular items, recipes, or time. Parents can come for visits to share a story or song in their native language, or cook with the whole class. It can also go a long way to make an effort to learn a few key words in your students’ native languages, both to make communication easier and to demonstrate your commitment to an inclusive environment.

Reaching out to non-native English speaking parents can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. Many programs – Head Start among them – often have bilingual teachers, administrators, and interpreters, and offer resources for parents and families to attend English classes. This is also something your local government sometimes provides, so check the web for multilingual resources. Many programs offer printed documents in multiple languages, which can help families access important information as well as help create a more inclusive, welcoming center environment.

Families and young children need to have the experience of their home language being appreciated and recognized, in order to create a real feeling of belonging in school. This will help children feel more comfortable more quickly – and, as we all know, children who feel at home and supported in classrooms will learn more easily – and help their parents begin to feel more confident navigating what might be an unfamiliar school system to advocate for their children. The contributions of culturally diverse families are hugely valuable to individual centers as well as communities as a whole. Fortunately, as early childhood professionals we are in a good position to mitigate some of the challenges of dual language learners, and help every child get a great start in school.