This blog post was contributed by Cecília Aguiar (ISCTE-IUL).
Not all children attending early childhood education classrooms speak the same first language. What to do when children express themselves in their mother tongue, and not in the language of instruction? If we invest in the first language (i.e., the mother tongue), can we delay learning the language of instruction or, conversely, can we foster the successful development of the two languages? How to respond to immigrant or ethnic minority parents when they ask what they should do at home to promote language development in general or to promote the learning of the language of instruction?
The reflection that leads to the answer to these questions can be based on the following assumptions:
- Children who speak a different language at home are simultaneously learning two languages (or more);
- Multilingualism is a strength and a resource for the future;
- All mother tongues have equal value as a resource for the future and as a key dimension of the cultural heritage of each child and each family.
Based on these assumptions, we identify three reasons to value the mother tongues that coexist in the classroom:
Reason 1: Promote positive ethnic or cultural identities
“Respect for the languages and cultures of children is a form of intercultural education, making children feel valued and interacting securely with others.”  Thus, valuing the mother tongue is a means to promote self-confidence, pride towards the family, and a positive social identity. These are very important goals as confidence in one’s own ethnic or cultural identity leads to greater acceptance and appreciation of diversity and, therefore, to more harmonious and tolerant relationships , contributing to social cohesion.
Reason 2: Promote the learning of the language of instruction and (possibly) cognitive development
It may seem counterintuitive, but research suggests that the development of the mother tongue favours the learning of a second language . For example, a child who has high-quality literacy experiences in the family context (e.g., who reads books frequently) in both the mother tongue and the second language (i.e., the language of instruction) is more likely to learn a second language better .
Because language exposure is essential for learning, the more opportunities children have – at home, in preschool, or in the community – to expand their vocabulary and understand the structure of their mother tongue, the greater the likelihood to be fluent in the language of instruction, assuming a high exposure to the second language, both in formal contexts (such as preschool) and in non-formal contexts (such as extracurricular activities).
The learning path and rhythm with which multilingual children acquire fluency in the language of instruction is certainly different; however, the potential benefits of multilingualism justify investment in learning two languages (or more). Communicating in different languages has important social inclusion benefits in the early years, allowing children to communicate both within their families and communities of origin as well as within the host community, including with peers and teachers. Further, speaking multiple languages in adulthood may allow for important professional benefits. Finally, some research suggests that multilingual children perform better in executive functions such as cognitive flexibility, that is, the ability to adapt behaviour to the demands of the task and solve problems creatively . There is even evidence that multilingualism may have a protective effect on cognitive functions in adults over 65 years . However, the bilingual cognitive advantages are still under investigation.
Reason 3: Promote and expand learning opportunities for all children in the classroom
An inclusive school sees diversity as a source of learning opportunities for all children. By strengthening the mother tongues of all children in the classroom, we increase communication and contact opportunities among all children, favouring the creation of a learning community where everyone has something to teach and everyone has something to learn. For example, using everyday words and expressions such as “hello”, “good morning”, “good appetite”, “good work”, “thank you”, “please” and “until tomorrow” in the mother tongues of all children in the classroom, and asking “how do we say […] in [language]” during daily routines can be simple strategies to convey appreciation for the knowledge of each child and to encourage curiosity and communication among children. Of course, answers can be obtained from the children as well as families and/or active inquiry processes.
Tips for reflection
If these arguments for the appreciation of the mother tongues of all the children in the group are convincing, the next step is to reflect on the educational practices that translate this idea. The following questions may guide this reflection:
- Do you value the mother tongues of all the children in the classroom equally? How?
- What do you do when a child expresses him/herself in his/her mother tongue? To what extent does your response demonstrate, implicitly or explicitly, appreciation for the value and interest of the language?
- How do you use classroom routines and activities to value and use all the mother tongues that coexist in the room in meaningful ways?
- How do you communicate with children who do not speak the language of instruction? Do you involve the families?
- Do your recommendations to families enhance exposure to both the mother tongue and the language of instruction?
Valuing the mother tongue of all children does not require that each teacher learns multiple languages throughout his or her career. However, simple steps such as welcoming each child, each day with the typical greeting of their language or culture, can signal appreciation for the unique resource that each child brings to the group and can use throughout life. In each group, with each child and each family, other strategies can emerge naturally and meaningfully in the context of daily routines and group activities.
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