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Promoting Language Diversity in the Early Years and Beyond

Children and youth enter your program with a range of language experiences, 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?

There are over 300 languages 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 in U.S. homes. 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.

Source: 1 Ryan (2013); 2 Paradis, J., Genesee, F., & 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, more than 830 languages are 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 within Military Families

Military families may be particularly likely to come into contact with a range of languages. Fluency in certain languages like Mandarin or Arabic has long been a strategic priority. 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.


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 learns to focus on the sounds in the languages around them. By 12 months, babies only respond to sounds in the language that are part of their native language (or languages for bilinguals). 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 in bilingual households, infants coo and babble in ways that are very similar to monolingual children.
  • Bilingual 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 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 his or her second language.

Watch as this child first communicates in their home language and then begins to develop and share their understanding of English over time.

Soyul & Teacher Yvette... Beginning A New Language

Video provided by Teaching At The Beginning, Inc

By age 7, language learning becomes 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, they use language in different ways based on the situation. They may use English with a teacher and Urdu with friends. When a child code-meshes, they combine parts of both languages to communicate. For example, a preteen may write a poem that combines writing in English and Swahili. They may choose words intentionally to represent his or her 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.

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 it may prevent diseases later in life, such as Alzheimer’s (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 culture 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.

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.


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: Direct Care 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, or at the request of your trainer, coach, or administrator.


Use the resources in the Perspectives on Language Diversity resource to reflect on your own thinking about language. Read and then answer the questions that follow.


Read the Benefits of Being Bilingual resource sheet from the organization, Too Small to Fail. What information is new to you about the benefits of being bilingual? What information could you share with coworkers 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 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 infants to multiple languages will confuse them.
Which of the following is a common behavior for sequential 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. Available from

¡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.

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

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.