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Building on the Strengths of Multilingual Families, Staff, & Communities

Native speakers are the best assets for promoting language diversity in your program. This lesson describes how to build on the culture and language diversity in your program. You will learn how to collaborate with families, staff, and community members to build a rich language experience for children and youth.

  • Identify strategies for learning about the languages of families, staff, and communities.
  • Describe the role of trainers and managers in supporting language diversity in programs.
  • Describe the rationale for supporting language diversity in programs.



Global migration has not only increased the number of bilingual, multi-ethnic children enrolled in child and youth programs, it has also increased the number of staff and family members who speak multiple languages.

This is an asset for your programs and one that you can use to build children’s language and cultural development. One of the best things you can do to support children’s language is to support the adults around them. This lesson will help you learn how to build on the strengths in your program and community.

As mentioned in Lesson One, it is very likely that you live and work in a multilingual community. You can strengthen your program by nurturing relationships across these many cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Multilingual adults (both families and staff members) are assets. When collaborating with multilingual teams:

  • If you or other members of the team are multilingual, you should feel comfortable speaking with children and youth in the languages you speak. In many programs, English is required as a condition of employment, but this does not mean that English is the only language that can be spoken in the program. Use your language ability to provide authentic, meaningful language experiences for children and youth.
  • Build on the unique communities around you. It is likely that some staff or family members within your program speak languages other than English, or that they are part of local community organizations that are interested in sharing their language and culture with children and youth. Get to know these individuals and the languages they speak. They can help promote authentic language experiences for children, youth, and families.PUBLIC Remember that staff or family members may have come from around the world. Share with one another and build excitement for the global perspectives you can offer children, youth, and families.
  • Take the time to get to know adults and their language experiences. Never make assumptions about an individual’s language fluency based on appearance, country of origin, family name, or other characteristics.

Remember that language is part of cultural identity. The languages we speak are wrapped in global history, personal history, politics, and power. It is important to respect and acknowledge that language is a source of pride, but it can also be a source of pain for some speakers. Immigrants to the United States may have been discouraged from using their home languages at school or work. Adult children of immigrants may have lost fluency in their family’s heritage language. They may feel embarrassment or wish to blend in with mainstream culture. They may also feel a sense of loss when children are no longer able to communicate with cousins or grandparents. An important link to family history and traditions may feel broken. For others, such as American Indian and Alaskan Native communities, native languages may have been discouraged or banned for generations. Few adult speakers may remain to keep the language alive and teach it to children. Learning or reviving a heritage language as an adult is an important way to connect with cultural identity.


There is a lot you can do to model a positive approach to language in your program:

  • Encourage bilingual volunteers to read books with children in the volunteer’s home language or to join children in bilingual play.

  • Build a program-wide library of wordless picture books.

    Volunteers or staff members can share the books with children by discussing pictures in any language.

  • Support staff members’ bilingual curriculum activities.

    Some curriculum activities lend themselves easily to multiple languages. Review staff members’ activity plans or programming to look for activities that incorporate visual or nonverbal concepts. Emotions are a great example. Encourage bilingual staff members to discuss emotions in multiple languages on a daily basis. And encourage them to exaggerate facial expressions and use photos to make the meanings clear.

  • Ask families to share photos, art, textiles, or other materials from their homes and cultures.

    Display these attractively around program spaces. Encourage adults to come talk with staff or children about the items they share. For example, a volunteer may share a photo of her daughter’s quinceañera and describe the food, traditions, and dress in English and Spanish. Another volunteer may share paper lanterns and describe his family’s Lunar New Year traditions in English and Mandarin.

  • Make sure multilingual adults share important language traditions or routines.

    For example, encourage staff to sing the lullabies they heard as children at rest time. Give birthday greetings in children or staff members’ home languages.

  • Build on children’s experiences.

    Some children in your program may have lived outside of the United States. Talk about those experiences with older children. Invite them to reflect on the languages they have heard and the daily routines they have been a part of. Invite them to share souvenirs or memories from their experiences. Give them an opportunity to teach their peers new phrases, songs, or games in the languages they have learned.

  • Expand your experiences with your own heritage language.

    Even if you are several generations removed from a heritage language (or languages), it can be exciting to learn more about your family’s language history. Go to cultural festivals. Watch international movies; many streaming services have current international movies and TV shows with subtitles in English and other languages. Look into local language classes, choirs, or other opportunities to hear and practice a language that is important to you.

  • Make the most of your community.

    Whether you live in the U.S. or abroad, there are rich language communities all around you. Build relationships with people in your community who can help expose children to a variety of languages. Speaking multiple languages is an asset for the children in your program. As mentioned at the beginning of this course, it adds another perspective (or window) upon which to experience the world.

  • Build your own knowledge about multilingual development.

    Families or staff members may have questions and concerns. Provide research-based information about the benefits of a language rich environment for all children.


Watch this video to see examples of how coaches, trainers, and administrators build diverse language environments. In addition, listen to how some trainers and managers advocate for language diversity in their programs. As you watch, think about your own philosophy about language diversity and how you might respond.

Language Diversity: Collaboration

Watch this video to learn about how adults work together to support children's home languages and expose children to a variety of languages and cultures.


Take a few moments to reflect on your own language experiences. If other staff members in your program have completed this language course, they have also completed this reflection guide. Be sensitive to strong emotions about language and cultural experiences that surface in this exercise. Provide space and time for staff members to talk with each other or you about their reflections. In what ways are your experiences similar or different from theirs? What new knowledge or insights have you gained? How can this new knowledge help your team deliver meaningful language experiences to children and youth?


You can encourage exploration about language diversity in your program. Use the Learning About Languages and Cultures attachment to gain ideas to learn about the cultures, languages, and experiences of your staff, your colleagues, the families in your program, and your community.

This course has introduced many strategies for supporting language diversity within your program. In the Supporting Language Diversity: Direct Care course, we offered a practice inventory to direct care staff. The Supporting Language Diversity: Leadership Practice Inventory below is for Program Managers and/or Training & Curriculum Specialists. Use this inventory to reflect more deeply about the practices that you use to support staff in promoting language diversity within your program. After completing the inventory, discuss with each other how you might improve some of your program practices.


Cultural Identity:
aspects of a person’s being or the sense of belonging to a group
Foreign National:
an individual who is not a citizen of the country where they currently reside; on international military installations, foreign nationals may be citizens of the country in which the installation is located
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)
an individual who speaks more than one language fluently
Native Speaker:
an individual who speaks a language as their first language or 'mother tongue'


True or false? If a child’s parents speak a language other than English, the child will also speak that language throughout their lives.
Multilingual adults should:
Which of the following can help you collaborate with adults around language experiences for the children in your care?
References & Resources

Center for Applied Linguistics. (2018). Heritage FAQs. Retrieved from

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

Colours of Us (2016). 26 Multicultural Poetry Books for Children ages 0-10. 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. Retrieved from

González, N., Moll, L., & Aman, C. (Eds). (2005). Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities and classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.). (2005). Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities and classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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.). Exploring Cultural Concepts: Funds of Knowledge. Retrieved from

Moll, L. (n.d.). Funds of Knowledge Video.

Nemeth, K. (2015). Being a Bilingual Educator. Council for Professional Recognition. 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