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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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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