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Promoting Language Diversity in the Early Years and Beyond

Children and youth enter your program with a range of language experience, and they come from diverse language backgrounds. Child and youth programs have an opportunity to help all children develop strong language skills and healthy cultural identities. This lesson introduces common terms related to language development, describes typical development for multi-language learners, and summarizes the benefits of learning multiple languages in the early years and beyond.

  • Reflect on your own language history.
  • Define common terms related to language development in childhood.
  • Describe typical language development for children who learn multiple languages.
  • Describe the benefits of learning multiple languages.



学一门语言,就是多一个观察世界的窗户。 (Xué yì mén yǔyán, jiù shì duō yí ge guānchá shìjiè de chuānghu.) To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world. — Chinese proverb.

Think about the proverb above. How has the language (or languages) you speak shaped the way you view the world? How might your language influence the ways you interact with others? For example, does your language have different greetings or forms of address you use with different people based on how well you know them? Have you ever felt like your language limited you? Perhaps you could not find the words to describe a feeling or event. Now imagine a child growing up with multiple languages. What advantages might that child have?

Over 300 languages are spoken in homes across the United States. (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). In fact, over 1 in 5 U.S. families speak a language other than English at home. In 93 percent of these homes, English is also spoken. These families have more than one window, or perspective, from which to view the world. You may also have multiple linguistic windows available to you. This is a strength that will be explored throughout this course.

Whether you speak many languages or one, it is unlikely that you will speak every language represented in your program or community. Spanish is the most common language besides English spoken in U.S. homes (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010), but a large number of languages are thriving. The number of families speaking Vietnamese, Russian, Persian, and Armenian have more than doubled since 1980. Languages such as Malayalam, Telugu, Tamil, Punjabi, Bengali, Marathi, Amharic, Ibo, Yoruba, and Swahili also experienced growth of nearly 100 percent over the last 30 years. The U.S. Census Bureau expects the percentage of U.S. homes in which a language other than English is spoken to continue to increase.

Over 300 Languages are spoken in U.S. homes.  1 in 5 U.S. families speak a language other than English at home.  There are as many bilingual children in the world as there are monolinguals

Source: 1 Ryan (2013); 2 Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. (2011).Crago, M. (2011).

There is evidence that throughout human history most people have spoken multiple languages or dialects (Fan et al., 2015). Before industrialization, rapid travel, and instant communication, small communities frequently developed their own languages. They learned to speak the languages or dialects of other local communities so they could trade, socialize, or do business. It is still true that remote or isolated communities, particularly in mountainous areas, are more likely to speak a wide variety of distinct languages. In Papua New Guinea, for example, there are more than 830 languages spoken (CIA Factbook, 2021). Such exposure to multiple languages may enhance social development (Fan et al., 2015): speakers learn to notice details about how and when to use certain languages, and they learn to take on others’ perspectives.

Language Experiences with Military Families

Military families are particularly likely to come into contact with a range of languages. Fluency in non-Western European languages, such as Mandarin or Arabic has long been a strategic priority for U.S. national security. Service members are also likely to live in linguistically diverse regions of the country. For example, four of the states with the largest numbers of active duty service members (California, Texas, Florida, and Hawaii) also have the largest number of multilingual homes (Ryan, 2013; U.S. Department of Defense, 2016).

Military families may also have frequent opportunities to live abroad on one of the many U.S. military installations around the world. Meaningful experiences with a variety of languages in your programs can help children feel more comfortable with international moves. Children, families, and staff who have already lived on or near international installations will bring back experiences, languages, and customs that enrich your program.

Benefits of Language Diversity & Exposure to Multiple Languages

There are many benefits to bilingualism and exposure to multiple languages. Children who learn multiple languages learn to be sensitive to their conversation partners; they make word and language choices based on their knowledge of others. These are sophisticated social decisions that show advanced social skills.

Bilingual children also show stronger executive function skills (attention, flexibility, memory, self-control) than children who learn only one language (Bialystock, Craik, & Luk, 2012). Bilinguals must pay attention and respond to different sets of language rules, linguistic or cultural norms, and social environments. This seems to build pathways in the brain for greater executive function and may prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s later in life (Craik, Bialystock, & Freedman, 2010).

Exposure to multiple languages helps children build healthy cultural identities. Language is one of the defining features of a culture. When language is lost or undervalued, children may see their cultures as lost or undervalued. For children in the U.S. whose home language is not English, it is essential that their home language be encouraged, valued, and reflected in child and youth programs. It is also essential to expose English-only speakers to the wide range of languages present in their community and the country. This supports healthy identity development for all children and youth as members of diverse communities.


How Children Learn Languages

You might wonder whether children can learn multiple languages. The short answer is: Yes! In fact, infants’ brains are wired for language learning. A newborn baby’s brain responds differently to speech sounds than it does to nonspeech sounds. There is even some evidence that the language a baby is exposed to while in the womb affects how the baby responds to sounds shortly after birth (May et al., 2011). A 6-month-old baby can distinguish between all the sounds in every human language (Kuhl, 2010). Through interactions with other people, babies gradually learn to focus on the sounds in the languages around them. By 12 months, babies only respond to sounds in their native language (or languages for babies living in bilingual environments). After age 3, the process of learning a language changes and requires more effort on the part of the learner.

For simultaneous bilinguals, you might see the following patterns:

Simultaneous bilinguals learn two or more languages at the same time during the first three years of life.  For example, a child lives with two parents who speak different native languages. Each parent speaks their native language to the child, and the child learns both languages simultaneously.

  • During the first 6 months of life, bilingual infants coo and babble in ways that are very similar to the sounds of monolingual children.
  • Babies speak their first words around the age of 1, and their first words may come from either language. First words may emerge slightly later in bilingual babies than in monolingual babies.
  • By 2 years, bilingual toddlers may use one- or two-word phrases from both languages.
  • By 3 years, bilingual children combine words from both languages into phrases and sentences (“mi mama is at work”).
  • By 4 years, bilingual children are able to use both languages in different situations (e.g., speak French with their mother at home and English with teacher at school).

Simultaneous Bilingual


  1. Daniel occasionally coos and babbles. No words just yet
  2. First Words A bit later than a monolingual child, Daniel says his first words.
  3. Daniel uses one- or two-word phrases from both languages.
  4. Daniel combines words from both languages by saying “mi mama is at work”.
  5. Daniel speaks English at school, but Spanish to his mother at home.

Sequential Bilingual


  1. Language development in the first language follows predictable milestones.
  2. Second Language Introduced Aaliyah’s grandmother moves in, who speaks only in Arabic. Aaliyah’s parents incorporate it into their everyday conversations and interactions with her.
  3. Silent Period Aaliyah has stopped using any Arabic words
  4. Aaliyah sometimes uses grammer rules for English when speaking Arabic.

For sequential bilinguals, different patterns occur:

Sequential bilinguals learn a primary language first and then learn a second language before the age of 3. For example, the second language could be acquired from a grandparent who moves in and speaks a language that is different than the language originally introduced to the child at home. Or, the second language could be introduced in an early child care program.

  • Language development in the first language follows predictable milestones.
  • When the second language is introduced, the child may first use nonverbal. communication (pointing gestures) or simple phrases (“my turn,” “stop”).
  • There may be a “silent period” of up to a few months when the child does not speak in the second language.
  • The child may apply grammar rules from the first language to the second language.

Watch how this caregiver sensitively responds as this child shares their home language and begins to develop an understanding of English. What supportive feedback could you offer this staff member?

Soyul & Teacher Yvette... Beginning A New Language

Video provided by Teaching At The Beginning, Inc

By age 7, children approach language learning as a conscious process—that is, older children, teens, and adults no longer learn language through exposure alone. Language learning after age 3 may involve more intentional teaching around vocabulary, grammar, and academic language.

Throughout childhood, it is common for bilingual or multilingual children to combine languages or use language in interesting ways. This is known as code-switching and code-meshing. When a child code-switches, she uses language in different ways based on the situation. She may use English with a teacher and Urdu with her friends. When a child code-meshes, he combines parts of both languages to communicate. For example, a preteen may write a poem that combines writing in English and Swahili. He may choose words intentionally to represent his experiences (e.g., the word “mother” may be in Swahili and the word ”smartphone” may be in English). Children may also mix the written letters or characters from multiple languages in their writing.

While it is possible for individuals to speak many languages fluently, most bilinguals have one language they consider their primary, or strongest, language. It is also common for bilinguals to have different areas of strength or knowledge in each language. For example, a child may be able to understand and speak a language without being able to read or write it. Alternatively, it may be easier for some bilinguals to make sense of written texts if the material is particularly complicated or they need time to translate or think.

The following video provides additional information about the development of bilingual or multilingual children and the importance of language diversity for all children.

Language Diversity: An Introduction

Watch this video to learn about the development of bilingual children and the importance of supporting language diversity for all children.

You may need to help staff members understand these important facts about language development. Consider the variety of things you may see, say, and do to support staff:

See Say Do



What you see:

Dana is very excited about helping young children learn multiple languages and talks often about how this age is an important time for language learning. However, you have noticed that she is trying to only speak in languages other than English, but it is clear that she is learning these languages from the internet and is not fluent.

You Say

What staff might say to support thinking skills:

“I am so glad you are excited about language! You are absolutely right about how important language is for infants. Tell me more about your plans for introducing languages. Tell me about the home languages you’ve heard spoken by the families in your group.”

“I think it’s very important to start slowly. What would it look like to focus on one language other than English? What are some natural ways to introduce new words or interactions?

“Remember that the best way to support multiple language learning is to support the first language. How are you making sure the children are getting a language-rich experience in their first language?”

You Do

What staff might do to support thinking skills:

Spend some extra time observing and modeling in Dana’s classroom. Give her very specific feedback about the moments when she uses language in natural and authentic ways.

Introduce Dana to resources for folk songs or stories that she can play or sing.

Sit with Dana and plan out the intentional language experiences she wants to put in her lesson plans.


What you see:

Tisha expresses concern about Alisha, a preschooler who has just enrolled at your center, where most of your staff are predominantly monolingual English speakers. Alisha had been cared for by her Spanish-speaking grandmother until the family moved last month. Tisha tells you Alisha never talks. She won’t make a sound. Tisha is concerned that Alisha may have a language impairment.

You Say

What staff might say to support thinking skills:

“I understand your concerns. It sounds like you’re worried that Alisha’s language isn’t thriving. Have you noticed any talk between her and her family?”

“Thanks for bringing this concern to me. Tell me more about what you’ve noticed. Does she interact with materials or toys? Does she seem to notice other children?”

“Let’s spend some time getting to know Alisha and helping her feel comfortable. I wonder how she’d respond if you spoke a few words in Spanish? Maybe we could talk to her family about her favorite things and learn a few important words.”

You Do

What staff might do to support thinking skills:

Schedule observations to get to know Alisha and how she interacts in the classroom. Look for ways she interacts with other children and the ways adults interact with her.

Talk with Tisha about the things you notice Alisha playing with or interested in. Ensure Tisha knows about the normal pattern in sequential bilinguals of a “silent” period, which may sometimes last up to a few months, when the child will not speak in the second, or newer, language. Remind her that language acquisition typically begins with listening, and gaining understanding, before speaking. Reflect with Tisha, is Alisha able to follow simple directions? 
If more investigation is warranted, schedule a meeting to talk with Alisha’s family about her language experiences. Determine whether she is reaching expected milestones in her home language.


What you see:

Tim expresses frustration that a group of boys insists on only speaking Spanish with each other and hanging out together. He is concerned that they are excluding other youth. He’s also worried that they are missing opportunities to practice English.

You Say

What staff might say to support thinking skills:

“I can tell you’ve got the boys’ best interests at heart. What have you noticed about the ways the boys use language? Have you noticed any positives the boys may be experiencing from using Spanish with each other?”

“In what ways is the boys’ behavior the same as other youth their age? Can you describe any behaviors that concern you?”

“What are the boys’ experiences the rest of the day? How do you think the after-school time is different for them or helping them relax?”

“I heard you say you are worried the boys are excluding others. What have you seen that makes you think that? I wonder what experiences they are having with the youth who only speak English? Is it possible these boys actually feel isolated or excluded?”

You Do

What staff might do to support thinking skills:

Continue having conversations with Tim about youth development and the importance of friendships. Note ways the boys may be using language to build connections with each other.

Brainstorm ways to make language a strength in the program. If Tim is worried about exclusion, discuss ways to encourage non-Spanish speakers to begin learning and interacting with the boys.



Completing this Course

For more information on what to expect in this course, and a list of the accompanying Learn, Explore, and Apply resources and activities offered throughout the lessons, visit the Supporting Language Diversity: Coaching Course Guide

Please note the References & Resources section at the end of each lesson outlines reference sources and resources to find additional information on the topics covered. As you complete lessons, you are not expected to review all the online references available. However, you are welcome to explore the resources further if you have interest.


Think about your own experiences and ideas about language as you use the Perspectives on Language Diversity reflection to answer the questions that follow.


Read the Benefits of Being Bilingual resource sheet from the organization, Too Small to Fail. While this resource was developed with young children in mind, it contains information also relevant to children and youth. What information is new to you about the benefits of being bilingual? What information could you share with staff members or families?


using or being able to use two languages, especially with equal fluency (Merriam-Webster)
the act of blending multiple languages or dialects (Young, V. A. & Martinez, A. &. (Eds.), 2011)
the switching from the linguistic system of one language or dialect to that of another language or dialect (Merriam-Webster)
the ability to speak and understand a language easily
Heritage language:
the language spoken in the home during childhood; in the U.S., this typically refers to a language other than English, and the ability to read and write in a heritage language is not always fully developed because schooling tends to occur in the majority language (e.g., English)
having or using only one language (Merriam-Webster)
using or able to use several languages, especially with equal fluency (Merriam-Webster)
Phonological awareness:
a set of skills related to identifying and playing with the sounds of language (Reading Rockets)
Sequential bilingualism:
children learn their primary language first and then a second language
Simultaneous bilingualism:
children learn two languages at the same time from birth


True or false? Exposing children to multiple languages will confuse them.
Which of the following is a common behavior for bilingual children?
Which of the following is not a benefit of multiple language learning?
References & Resources

American Speech and Hearing Association (2017). Becoming Bilingual/El Niño Bilingüe. 

American Speech and Hearing Association (2017). Teaching Your Child Two Languages. Retrieved from

Bialystok, E., Craik, F., & Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: Consequences for mind and brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16, 240-250. 

Central Intelligence Agency (2021). The World Factbook.

¡Colorín Colorado! A Bilingual Website for Educators and Families of English Language Learners. Retrieved from

Craik, F., Bialystok, E., & Freedman, M. (2010). Delaying the Onset of Alzheimer Disease: Bilingualism as a form of cognitive reserve. Neurology, 75, 1726-1729. 

Fan, S. P., Liberman, Z., Keysar, B., & Kinzler, K. D. (2015). The Exposure Advantage: Early exposure to a multilingual environment promotes effective communication. Psychological Science, 26(7), 1090-1097.Advantage: Early exposure to a multilingual environment promotes effective communication. Psychological Science, 26(7), 1090-1097.

George Washington University (n.d.). Second Language Culture Exposure for Children & Youth. Graduate School of Education and Human Development, Washingtion, D.C. Retrieved from

Kuhl, P. (2010). The Linguistic Genius of Babies. TED video. Retrieved from

May, L., Byers-Heinlein, K., Gervain, J., & Werker, J. F. (2011). Language and the Newborn Brain: Does Prenatal Language Experience Shape the Neonate Neural Response to Speech? Frontiers in Psychology2, 222;

National Association for the Education of Young Children (1995). Responding to Linguistic and Cultural Diversity: Recommendations for Effective Early Childhood Programs. A position statement of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Retrieved from

National Security Education Program (NSEP) (n.d.). Critical Languages: Focus on Less-commonly taught languages. Retrieved from

Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & Crago, M. (2011). Dual Language Development and Disorders: A handbook on bilingualism & second language learning. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing.

Ryan, C. (2013). Language Use in the United States: 2011. U.S. Census Bureau: American Community Survey Reports. Retrieved from

Young, V. A. & Martinez, A. &. (Eds.), 2011. Code-Meshing as World English: Pedagogy, Practice, Performance. National Council of Teachers of English.