Bilingual Babies: Key messages for pre-school settings

Working with pre-school children is enormously rewarding. They are full of enthusiasm and energy, soaking up the world around them like little sponges.

Children who come to pre-school or nursery speaking a language other than English are in a great position to become truly bilingual and benefit from its neurological and cognitive advantages.

What messages are important for staff working with young EAL learners to promote?

Message No. 1: Value Home Languages

One of the first things to remember is that a home language is integral to any child’s identity. Developing fluency in your home language will enable children to communicate with family and friends outside school; this is a vital life-skill.

The pre-school setting therefore needs to be a safe space for pupils to continue speaking their home language. Parents and children need to feel that their languages are valued.

Message No. 2: Show your linguistic and cultural credentials

To break down language barriers, settings need to demonstrate how all languages and cultures are valued.

The implications for any setting are to make sure induction processes are well-thought out. Staff should find out about the child’s languages from the parents, use the parents to help settle the youngster in, and learn some key words in the child’s home language.

Displaying and using a few words and phrases in a child’s home language conveys an appreciation of its worth. For ideas, see our teaching and learning resources.

Message No.3: Be clear about who speaks what language, and who to…

As babies and young children have the capacity to learn several languages at the same time, it is important for Pre-Nursery and Early Years settings to ensure they are sufficiently exposed to different languages.

Babies and young children tune in to a language first and then associate it with a person. In this way, the language becomes associated with that individual. Therefore, it is sensible to encourage parents to speak their home language outside school, as this language will be associated with familiar people at home, while English language learning is developed inside the setting and will be associated with nursery staff.

A sympathetic, collaborative dual-language approach will strengthen children’s speech and communication skills through developing their first, and strongest language, while also developing English as an Additional Language (EAL).

In some cases, staff might find a child ignoring someone trying to speak their home language, (a new bilingual support worker for example), if people in that setting normally speak to them in English. This is because the staff member will be using the ‘wrong code’, according to the child’s developing language map.

Message No 4: Allow children time to ‘tune in’ to English

Although babies and young children are naturally good communicators, young child learning EAL can still show a reluctance to speak.

As with most people, not understanding what is going on around you can frighten a young child, so all children will need time and space to settle into a new environment, especially those learning EAL. Using play to engage them and non-verbal gestures will help to break down barriers.

EAL Learners will require time to tune-in to English as their new language. Once they understand a few words and phrases and have started to develop their receptive language, they will then transfer this knowledge into expressive language and start putting words together to make phrases, then sentences, similar to their peers learning English as their first language.

Message No 5: Communicate the value of bilingual learning to parents

It’s possible for children learning EAL to have speech delays, mispronounce words and to mix up languages. This can happen if the same person speaks to a child in two languages.

Wherever possible, adults need to be consistent with the language they use with a child. Implications for nursery settings are to use English during pre-school sessions, but to encourage parents to use the home language outside school. In addition, the setting should ensure that staff monitor children’s developmental and language progress effectively and understand what ‘normal’ behaviour is for a child learning EAL and what might be a signal for SEND.

Bilingualism, however, is not a learning difficulty. EAL children should not be considered as having SEND until they have had reasonable time to acquire basic English skills, or unless they are showing signs of SEND traits in their general behaviour (i.e., when language is not an issue) and/or when speaking their home language.

Key message:

To support children in the early stages of bilingualism, pre-school settings should work with parents to encourage both home language and English to develop alongside each other.  Research has shown that children with well-developed first languages go on to learn English quickly as they have a firm cognitive base to build their new language learning on. Work together with parents to create strong, bilingual children who will thrive in a globalised age.

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