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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 will describe how you can use your environment, interactions, and planned experiences to nurture language diversity in your classroom or program.

  • 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.



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 of your classroom or program. Classrooms and 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.


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 enrich these environments by adding interesting, relevant, and diverse language.

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 classroom or program space. For example, a family sign-in area can be an ideal location to add the word “Welcome” or “Hello” in the languages spoken by teachers and the families of the children in your classroom or program. Be sure to include your own home or heritage language. Ask families or coworkers for help writing the words if you are unfamiliar with a language's script or writing. Consider introducing new words for different parts of the daily schedule and writing those alongside your posted schedule. For example, you might ask a coworker who speaks Vietnamese to help you write and say the word “Nap” or “Bus” for your daily schedule.

Dramatic play (or drama/theater spaces in school-age programs) are ideal spaces to introduce multiple languages. Children can explore menus from a wide variety of restaurants (Italian, Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Thai, German, Ethiopian, etc.). If you do not live in an area with many dining options, consider downloading and printing the Spanish menus from fast food or chain restaurants. Ask coworkers or families to lend you cookbooks in a variety of languages, or visit your local library for support and ideas, such as a collection of international cookbooks.

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. Stock the library or book area with bilingual books. The Apply section has a book list of recommended bilingual titles for infants through school-age.


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. Nurturing adults should acknowledge children’s attempts to communicate in any language and help children persist until they are understood.

For children who are bilingual or learning English in addition to a home language, it is important to always encourage them to use the home language. If you are multilingual, share that gift with the children you serve. Talk, sing, and play in your language every day.

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 author’s choices and meanings with the children.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Cultural festivals or community outings:

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

  • Technology exploration:

    Encourage children and youth to have fun with free services like Google Translate. This can open discussions about the complexity of language and the nuance required for skilled translators. For example, children could enter the lyrics to a favorite song and translate it to the language of their choice. 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.

  • Poetry:

    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.


Watch this video to see examples of language-rich environments and experiences for infants through school-agers.

Language Diversity: Environments

Watch this video to learn about how to support language diversity in child and youth care programs.


There are many opportunities to support language diversity in child and youth programs. Consider the following strategies and how you could include them in your daily interactions with children.

Learn cognates.

There are many words that have become globally understood or that share common linguistic roots. For infants and toddlers, the sounds mama and papa are common in many languages. English-speaking preschoolers through pre-teens may enjoy discovering words they understand in non-English texts. For example, they may recognize the words dinosaurio or banana in a Spanish text. Playing audio recordings or videos of spoken language may lead to more discoveries. They may recognize that the words sherbet or sorbet derived from the Arabic sharbaht (شربات).

Build on children’s existing knowledge.

Use universal symbols recognized everywhere, such as the stop sign. Bring in pictures of stop signs from around the world. For preschool age children, offer a simple vote: “What does this sign mean? Stop or Go.” Hold discussions about the similarities and differences in language and the ways people use symbols to communicate. Work together to find more symbols from around the world that the children can “read.” With school-age children, explore a written language and encourage them to search the internet or library for information to learn about which countries and cultures use that language.

Add words to your own language.

Switch up a common routine. For example, if you usually get children’s attention by saying, “If you can hear me, touch your nose” or “clap your hands,” Try saying: “If you can hear me, touch your nariz” or “clap your manos.” Model the movements while you say the words. For older children, try introducing a new greeting each week. Look online to learn how to pronounce the greeting accurately before you teach it to the children. See if children can guess the language or guess which country uses the greeting.

Share a song, rhyme, or folktale in its original language.

Learn about language and culture through powerful tools like songs, rhymes, and folktales. You may read these materials yourself, or you may use audio recordings or online videos. 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.

Read, talk, and sing every day.

The best way to build a second language is to build a strong first language. Be sure you read, talk, and sing every day with each child.


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.


Review the Environmental Tip Sheet for creating a supportive environment around language diversity and the bilingual Book List.


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)


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, MD: Brookes Publishing Company.

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