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Engaging Language Diversity in Adults: Families, Coworkers, & 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, colleagues, and community members to build a rich language experience for children and youth.

  • Describe why collaboration is essential for language learning.
  • Identify strategies for learning about the languages of families, colleagues, and communities.
  • List ways you can involve other adults in language learning in the program.



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. The best thing 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 (families and staff members) are assets. Here are a few important things to know about 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 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. 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 U.S. may have been discouraged from using their home languages at school or work. Adult children raised by 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 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.


Watch this video to see examples of how adults collaborate to build diverse language environments:

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.


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

    For English-speaking children, pre-read the books in English so children have exposure to the ideas and patterns in the book. For children who are dual language learners, work with families and volunteers to pre-read books in the child’s home language before reading them in English. It’s best to read books all the way through in a single language, but adults can introduce important words or ideas before reading. Also remember the value of “picture walks”: look through the book together and make guesses about the book. For example, an adult may show a book of fairy tales and say, “I call this person Rotkäpchen in German. Let’s look at the pictures and see if you can guess what she’s called in English … It looks like she’s going to see her Oma, but she meets a Wolf. OK, let’s read it in German.”

  • Build a library of wordless picture books.

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

  • Plan bilingual curriculum activities.

    Some curriculum activities lend themselves easily to multiple languages. Look for activities that incorporate visual or nonverbal concepts. Emotions are a great example. If you or a coworker are bilingual, discuss emotions in English and your (or the coworker’s) home language on a daily basis. Exaggerate facial expressions and use photos of events to make the meanings clear.

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

    Display these attractively around the room or program spaces. Encourage adults to come talk with 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.

  • Encourage multilingual adults to offer meaningful language experiences about children’s interests.

    Repeat children’s words, add information, and expand on ideas in the language most comfortable to you. Repeat simple phrases and act them out or explain them. Be patient: Children are always listening and learning even if they don’t use the words.

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

    For example, sing the lullabies you heard as a child at rest time. Say the words your family says before or after eating a meal. For example: “Bon appétit!” (French), “Mahlzeit!” (German Austrian), “Kainan na!” (Tagalog). Give birthday greetings in your home language(s).

  • Build on children’s experiences.

    Some children in your program may have lived outside 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 heritage 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 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 your program. As mentioned at the beginning of this lesson, it offers children another perspective (or window) upon which to experience the world.


Reflect on your own language history and culture as you complete the Funds of Knowledge reflection guide. Funds of knowledge include the understanding, skills, and experiences an individual builds about their community, family life, and culture through everyday interactions. When you are finished, compare and discuss your responses with a colleague. What can you learn about the richness of language experiences in your program and community?


Use the Learning About Languages and Cultures attachment to gain ideas for learning about the culture and language of families, colleagues, and your community.

This course has introduced many strategies to support diverse languages in your classroom and program. Use the Supporting Language Diversity: Direct Care Practice Inventory to think more deeply about the practices that you use to support and promote language diversity in your classroom. After completing this inventory, talk with your trainer, coach, or administrator if you need more support. Training & Curriculum Specialists may also use this inventory to observe direct care staff’s 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
Funds of knowledge:
the understanding, skills, and experiences an individual builds about their community, family life, and culture through everyday interactions
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

¡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. Accessed from

González, N., Moll, L., & Aman, C. (Eds). (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. 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

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