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Environments and Experiences to Promote Language Diversity

Child and youth programs are ideal spaces to help children expand their knowledge of languages and cultures. This lesson describes how you can help staff use the environment, interactions, and planned experiences to nurture language diversity in your classrooms or programs.

  • Describe how environments, interactions, and planned experiences promote language development in multiple languages.
  • Identify specific strategies to incorporate languages into your program day.
  • Identify resources (books, websites) to broaden exposure to languages.
  • Provide feedback to staff on the ways they support language.



Whether you speak one language or many, you can help children develop a love for languages. You can also honor and expand the language diversity that exists in your program. Programs that promote a love for language learning have several characteristics in common. First, the environments are rich in language opportunities. Second, interactions happen throughout the day in ways that bring children’s interest and focus to language. Third, planned experiences introduce children to diverse languages. This lesson highlights ways you can help staff members make the most of these three opportunities to support multilingual development.


The work you already do to create a meaningful environment for children and youth can also help you promote language diversity. You have much of what you need already: books, art materials, drama or play materials, and classroom displays (labels, signs, etc.). You can help staff enrich these environments by adding interesting, relevant, and diverse languages.

Language is nurtured by building on what children already know. Learn about the languages spoken in the homes of the children and staff in your program. Then identify simple ways to incorporate those languages into your program spaces. For example, a family sign-in area or the front lobby can be an ideal location to add the word “Welcome” or “Hello” in the languages spoken by staff and the families of the children in your program. Be sure to include your staff's home or heritage languages. Ask families or coworkers for help writing the words if you are unfamiliar with a language's script or writing. This is a great way to recognize staff for the language strengths they bring to the program. Consider highlighting language diversity in program materials or displays. Also, be sure that all printed materials are accessible to families and staff. Military OneSource can be a good resource for translating important documents for families:

Explore your local community and build off its strengths. Consider hosting staff get-togethers at local restaurants with international menus. Encourage staff to explore new types of foods and to bring back takeout menus to add to dramatic play areas. If you live outside of the continental U.S., encourage staff to take field trips with you into local towns. Gather free or low-cost materials to enrich dramatic play, literacy, or art spaces (maps in multiple languages, photos of street signs, paper menus or brochures, recipe cards from a grocery store, magazines, newspapers).

Recognize and showcase the diversity of your staff. Encourage your program staff to share healthy snacks in the staff room that reflect their heritage or experiences. Make sure your program calendar reflects a wide range of important holidays and celebrations.

Encourage staff to attend professional development about dual language development—and attend with them! Look for free webinars from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and explore the resources available through websites listed in the References & Resources section of this lesson.

Create a staff lending library of multilingual books. A well-stocked library is an important area in any child and youth program, and it provides a natural space for language exploration. Picture dictionaries can help children learn about words and language, and they can become valuable resources for writing notes to friends or families in the home language. Look for interesting international magazines to keep in the book area or writing area. Help staff members stock the library or book area with bilingual books. The Apply section has a book list of bilingual titles for infants through school-age. Consider purchasing some of these books and make them available for staff to rotate through multiple classrooms or program spaces.


Language is learned through talking. The only way to truly learn a language is to use it. Daily interactions with adults or other children who speak a language can help a child develop and appreciate language diversity. Encourage the staff in your program to speak home or heritage languages with children. Multilingual staff are an incredible resource. If no one speaks a child’s language, encourage staff to begin learning important words like greetings, meal vocabulary, and care routines. Recognize staff who talk, sing, and play every day.

If you happen to work in a program where staff members and families speak a number of different languages, support staff members in their authentic use of the languages spoken by the children, families, and staff in their particular classroom. When staff members share their home or heritage languages with the children in their care, or incorporate key words or songs from the native languages of the children in their room, they expose children to language and culture in a way that is meaningful to the individuals in their classroom community.

Planned Experiences

While language learning is natural for very young children, planned language experiences are crucial in the early years and beyond. These can take many forms.


  • Bilingual story time.

    A bilingual adult may read a book to a group of children in two languages. The book is usually read all the way through in one language and then read again in the second language. The adult may pause to ask questions, probe understanding, or involve the children in movement or active play related to the book. A monolingual adult may also identify books that incorporate words or phrases from another language into an English book. The adult reads and discusses the authors’ choices and meanings with the children.

  • Poetry.

    Provide resources that help staff introduce children and youth to language through poetry. The structure of poetry lends itself to creativity and experimentation with ideas and new languages. Poetry collections like Hip Hop Speaks to Children by Nikki Giovanni can build on children’s interests and inspire them to write about their own experiences in languages meaningful to them. Make sure staff members have access to books and time to plan.

  • Cooking projects.

    Families or community members may lead the group in cooking traditional or favorite dishes. Ingredients, recipe steps, and memories are shared in the home language and English.

  • Technology exploration.

    Help staff members think creatively about technology. Technology is often seen as something youth use on their own, but staff can create fun interactive language experiences. They can encourage children and youth to have fun with free services like Google Translate. This opens discussions about the complexity of language and the nuance required for skilled translators. For example, school-age youth could enter the lyrics to a favorite song and translate it to the language of their choice. Then they cut-and-paste the translation back into Google Translate and have Google translate it back to English. This can sometimes result in funny and interesting translations. The microphone feature of a smartphone or tablet with a free translation app can also be a fun supervised tool: after teaching school-agers a phrase, let them try pronouncing it to the app. Make it a game to see how quickly the app can recognize their speech and translate it back to English accurately.

  • Cultural festivals or community outings.

    Programs can make the most of the resources around them. Children, youth, and staff can participate in local cultural events or the program can plan field trips to local cultural organizations.

  • Multilingual pen pals.

    Adults may arrange and monitor pen-pal friendships between school-agers. This can be an opportunity for children to practice their language skills and learn about other cultures and countries.


As program leaders, you have many opportunities to model positive approaches to language. Think about the interactions you have daily with children, families, and staff. How could you use those interactions to promote language development? Some strategies include:

Keep learning.

Challenge yourself to stretch your own linguistic skills. Whether you speak one language or many, try to learn new words or phrases in a language. There are many words that have become globally understood or that share common linguistic roots. Start with words known as cognates (similar in multiple languages) and build from there. For example, the sounds mama and papa are common in many languages. You and children may recognize the words dinosaurio or banana in a Spanish text. Playing audio recordings or videos of spoken language may lead to more discoveries. Download free language learning apps or listen to a podcast for your own learning.

Talk about the ways language influences your work.

When working with staff, think about the ways language influences how we interact with each other. For example, English does not have a formal version of the word “you”; how might growing up in a language that has a formal form of address (e.g., usted in Spanish, Sie in German) influence how staff talk with managers, families, etc.? Are there ways that language and culture create unexpected tensions in the program? For example, are some staff members perceived as direct or critical? Could this be influenced by language? A training and curriculum specialist working in Germany shared an experience in which a staff member was very hurt by a coworker’s comment about a bulletin board; they came to realize after a lengthy discussion that there were cultural differences in how each staff member understood one particular word. From the German speaker’s perspective, she had chosen a common word that, although critical, was not typically personal or hurtful. From the English speaker’s perspective, she had heard a word she considered profane and personally offensive. This discussion helped each staff member becoming more aware of language nuances and helped them overcome a teaming challenge.

Be playful and intentional in your program spaces.

Consider labeling the staff lending library in a variety of languages. Post language-based trivia in interesting places like the inside of restroom doors (i.e., Did you know the word for toilet in Spanish is "el baño"?). If there is a shared staff password—one for such things as shared professional materials or logging onto a training computer—consider rotating the password through translations of words like “teacher,” “education,” “library,” or “curriculum.”

Share a song, rhyme, or folk tale in its original language.

Learn about language and culture through powerful tools like songs, rhymes, and folktales. Make sure staff have access to a large library of these materials. There are many resources available to help you identify high-quality language materials. In the Explore section of this lesson, you will learn about resources to help you in this work.

Recognize staff members who read, talk, and sing every day.

The best way to build a second language is to build a strong first language. Be sure staff members read, talk, and sing every day with each child. Celebrate the many ways staff members are creative and committed to language learning.


Watch this video to see examples of language-rich environments and experiences for infants through school-agers. Listen to how these training and curriculum specialists support diverse language use in their programs.

Language Diversity: Environments

Watch this video to learn about how to support language diversity in child and youth care programs from the perspective of trainers, coaches and administrators

This video showed staff members taking steps to offer rich language experiences with children and youth. As a training and curriculum specialist or manager, you must also be prepared to respond to a range of staff perspectives and performance. Take a few moments to review a variety of things you may see, say, and do.

See Say Do



What you see:

The staff have organized an evening potluck that emphasizes heritage foods. You overhear Courtney say, “I’m just going to eat my own stuff. This food looks weird.” Several staff members appear hurt or disrespected.

You Say

What staff might say to support thinking skills:

“Courtney, you make me wonder if any of our families or children feel this way when the food we serve is different from what they eat at home.”

“Food is connected with so many memories and experiences. Although everyone may not try everything, I want everyone here to know how thoughtful it is to share their foods and their stories.”

You Do

What staff might do to support thinking skills:

Model trying new things and encourage the staff to do the same.

Encourage staff members to share the story of the dish they brought. Encourage them to name the dish in the original language and any important ingredients that don’t have English translations. Stories might highlight how these dishes are more than just food—they are connected to language and history.

If staff have concerns about any children’s eating habits, help the staff members reflect on whether children may have different cultural expectations or experiences around food. Encourage discussions about what children like to eat.


What you see:

Although Lola has a number of children from multilingual homes in her classroom, she has insisted on speaking English only. She grew up speaking Spanish; she learned English as a teenager. She has told you that she thinks it’s very important for the children in her class to know English. She wants to do whatever she can to help them learn it.

You Say

What staff might say to support thinking skills:

“Thanks for sharing your concerns. I can understand why you want to focus on English in the classroom. Since our PUBLICprogram is located in a region where English is the majority language, these young children will have many ways to learn it! Remember, children could also benefit from your rich and authentic language expertise too. While it is important for the children in our center to learn and become proficient English speakers, it is also important that they recognize the value of their home language and culture. When you share your rich and authentic language expertise, you help communicate that respect and appreciation for diversity.”

You Do

What staff might do to support thinking skills:

Continue to encourage Lola’s connections with children.


What you see:

Trina makes bilingual materials available in the program, and she has labeled some areas in multiple languages. However, this seems to be the extent of language exposure. She never talks about the language materials or displays, and she never brings the youth’s attention to the materials.

You Say

What staff might say to support thinking skills:

“Tell me more about how you’ve chosen the bilingual materials in your spaces. What are your next steps?”

“You’ve done such a nice job making the environment language-rich. I wonder if the youth have noticed? What have you seen them do? What could you do to encourage them?”

You Do

What staff might do to support thinking skills:

Consider scheduling a site visit to another program that is expanding on language learning or exposure. If possible, go together so you can discuss what you saw with Trina.

Model bringing attention to materials. Sit down and read a bilingual book with a school-ager or play a bilingual app together. Have fun and talk with Trina about what you’re doing and why.



There are many resources available to help you build a language-rich classroom or program. The first step is to familiarize yourself with language resources. In this activity, you will browse a number of online resources and record useful information to share with coworkers or use in your classroom. Direct-care staff will complete the same exercise. Compare your answers and encourage each other to use the best resources.


Review the Environmental Tip Sheet for creating a supportive environment around language diversity.  Use this Environmental Tip Sheet as you observe in classroom or program spaces and then provide feedback to staff. For ideas to provide age-appropriate bilingual books in your staff resource library, see the bilingual Book List below.


a word or root that produces similar-sounding words with similar meanings in multiple languages, such as the English word ‘act’ and the Spanish ‘acto.’
Environmental print:
words or letters found in the environment; these can be permanent signs like “Exit” or they can be temporary labels, posters, or displays
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)
majority language:
the language that is spoken by the majority of inhabitants in a region. For example, English is the majority language in the U.S.


True or false? If you only speak English, you cannot read a bilingual book to children.
Which of the following is the best way to use your environment to support language diversity?
A second language is best learned through
References & Resources

Bardige, B. S. (2016). Talk to Me Baby! How you can support young children’s language development (2nd ed.). Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.

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

Espinosa, L. (2014). Getting it Right for Young Children from Diverse Backgrounds. New York, NY: Pearson.

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

Head Start National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness (n.d.). Including Children’s Home Language and Culture. Retrieved from

Head Start National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness (n.d). Creating Environments that Include Children’s Home Languages and Cultures. Retrieved from

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

Santos, R. M. & Ostrosky, M. M. (n.d.). Understanding the impact of language differences on classroom behavior. What works briefs #2. Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning. Retrieved from and 

Tabors, P. O. (2008). One Child, Two Languages: A guide for preschool educators of children learning English as a second language (2nd ed.). Baltimore: Brookes Publishing.

Tominey, S. L., & O’Bryon, E.C. (2017). 45 Strategies that Support Young Dual Language Learners. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing.