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Supporting Bilingual Children in Early Childhood

April 19, 2021

Children have incredibly elastic brains that grow and adapt at astonishing speeds, which makes learning two languages (or even more!) simultaneously not only possible, but beneficial for young children. In Australia it is increasingly common for children to learn more than one language - often children with one or both parents speaking a different language, or children who hear one language at home and one at school/childcare. These children will rapidly learn both languages and become fluent in both (bilingual), which is an advantage in many ways.

Supporting bilingual children in early childhood is vital for a smooth transition for children, their families and the childcare centre, and this article will explain how childcare providers can work with both children and parents of culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds to navigate this process at childcare.

Culturally safe care

In Australia, it is common that the language spoken at the childcare centre is English, and that the language spoken at home is from another country and culture. In order to provide culturally safe care, it is important to recognise and value the child’s first language and culture, and not to discourage its use. It is false that learning two languages at once can cause a language delay, or that it is easier for a child to learn English if other languages aren’t used at home.

Reassuring parents that it is beneficial to continue speaking in their first language (as well as English if they speak both), and asking about, including and celebrating the child’s other language and culture ensures families feel safe and welcome.

Language acquisition

Children acquire bilingualism in different ways, and as this affects what the learning process looks like, it’s important for childcare workers to understand which one is applicable to the situation.

If the child is exposed to both languages in early life (usually before 3 years old), they will undergo simultaneous acquisition, where they learn both languages at once. This process is fairly straightforward, as the child learns both in a similar manner and timeline, applying the rules of each language appropriately. It won’t cause language delays or speech impediments, and if a child has delayed speech development it will occur across both languages.

On the other hand, if the child has learnt the first language and is then exposed to a second language (usually over the age of 3), they will undergo sequential acquisition.  This process is a bit more complex, and childcare workers should be aware of the different phases so they can best support the child through each:

  • Silent period - as the child begins to take in the second language they often have a period of limited output, observing and absorbing.
  • Loss of language - during the acquisition of the second language, the child may appear to lose skills in their first language such as forgetting words or language rules. 
  • Language transfer - the child may use rules from one language in the other language, but this is expected and they will gradually learn the correct application.
  • Switching - the child uses both languages in a sentence, also completely expected and not of concern.

Whichever learning process the child is going through, it is immensely helpful to have childcare workers who understand and support their progress.

Providing learning support

Understanding the above language acquisition processes is vital, so that the childcare worker can normalise the experience, encourage the child and support them through any challenges. All children learn through play, singing, and repetition of language, so encouraging engagement with other children socially and through games and music will be beneficial for language acquisition.

Especially when a child is in the silent period, encourage and praise participation, and ensure that you are speaking to them - they will understand the tone of voice, attitude and gestures so use these to convey your meaning and show they are welcome and included. Repetition of basic phrases and directions, such as “come here,” and “wash hands,” can also help the child learn and begin to communicate.

Communicating with parents

As with any parents of children in childcare, communication is key to building good relationships and trust. When the parent is non-English speaking, it is still important to establish and maintain communication, so it will be a matter of finding a way that works best for the parents and for you.

This may be primarily through written communication, as it can be translated at the parents’ convenience and vice versa, but for more immediate communication, there are applications that translate as you speak or write, such as Speak & Translate, that could be installed on childcare communication devices to help bridge the language gap.  If it is viable, using a program such as Interprefy that offers remote simultaneous interpretation could also be a useful option.

As with children, tone of voice, body language and gestures convey meaning, so make sure that no matter what translation methods you employ, you are also using these signals to show kindness and support. Having an up-to-date diversity, equity and inclusion policy in the relevant language readily available is also essential to demonstrate how your childcare centre is managing and supporting these issues. 

With these tools, childcare educators can support the language acquisition process, provide culturally safe care and find ways of communicating with non-English speaking parents in childcare, to ensure that their practice and the childcare centre is inclusive, safe and welcoming for everyone. 

To reach parents and show them why your childcare centre is the best place for their child, register with toddle.com.au, the most comprehensive search website for childcare centres in Australia.

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Written by

Emma

Toddle is the most comprehensive child care finder in Australia, on a mission to make parents’ lives easier.