How should childcare professionals introduce children to a second language, or support bilingual children whose home language is not English?

Eight percent of the total population of England and Wales speak a main language other than English, according to the 2011 census – the greatest numbers speaking Polish, Punjabi and Urdu. Huge numbers of children are growing up in homes where English is not the only language spoken. The 2011 census also showed that 19 percent of the population in Wales spoke Welsh. 

The evidence is clear that learning more than one language from a young age can be enormously advantageous, resulting in improved working memory, self-control and mental flexibility, a lower rate of diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and greater employability.

Not only that, but for young children learning languages comes naturally and spontaneously. Researchers agree that there is a critical window up to age seven, beyond which our aptitude declines markedly.

An immersive approach

Seeing her daughter, then aged three, become fluent in just a few months while attending Spanish pre-schools abroad was part of what inspired Lianne Moseley to start Spanish/English bilingual childcare business Bonitots.

Within months of opening in 2015, she had a two-year waiting list and has now set up a nursery. But it is not only Spanish-speaking families who seek her out – half of her children come from homes where only English is spoken, or another language. Lianne has also worked with children for whom Spanish is a third language, and even recalls one child who spoke four languages fluently – English, Spanish, Flemish and Mandarin – “moving effortlessly between them”.

She has created an “immersive” bilingual setting where most transactional interactions and play activities are in Spanish. “But we do specific activities in English,” she explains. “Partly because we have a duty to support the child’s majority language as well, but also because of the EYFS stipulations for school readiness in England, and because all assessments need to be in English.

“All phonics teaching is in English for example, and I teach piano lessons in English so the children have the English vocabulary to continue music lessons elsewhere.”

Home support is essential too, and Lianne works closely with parents, for example sharing key words their children are learning.

Misconceptions about bilingualism

While the children clearly take it in their stride, misconceptions prevail, says Lianne – that a child’s language development will be held back by learning more than one language. “Our experience, and this is borne out by studies, is that bilingual or trilingual children have more words than monolingual children. Language is one of the strongest areas for all our children and that is because of, not in spite of, their bilingualism. For the children all I see are the benefits.”

Celebrating difference in bilingual children

Sue Smith of Sweet Peas Childcare in Ely, Cambridgeshire, marks 20 years as a childminder this year, and has cared for a number of children with English as an additional language, but has never found they struggle more to settle. As with all children, she says, “It depends on their disposition and how they’ve been parented.”

Her approach is to actively seek information from the parents about their culture, beliefs and family connections. She learns key words in a child’s home language.

Sue says: “We celebrate where they come from, what makes them different, and make them feel valued for who they are.”

She keeps her instructions in English simple and combines them with gestures, such as arms outstretched.

“Sometimes there is a language barrier with the parents as well,” Sue adds. “But it’s important to find a way to communicate, because if you can’t form a relationship and have that partnership, it isn’t going to work.”

Bilingual Wales

While bilingualism remains unusual in most of the UK, in Wales it is far more commonplace, supported by the government’s Welsh language Cymraeg 2050 strategy, which aims to have a million Welsh speakers by 2050, and includes a programme to support and expand Welsh-medium childcare provision. 

Dwynwen Thomas is a childminder based in Nefyn in North Wales. She has cared for children who are Welsh-speaking, English-speaking and those growing up with both languages at home.

“I get them to come into it gradually and begin by saying something in Welsh and then translating it into English so they get to hear both languages,” she explains. “I don’t want them to feel alienated because they don’t understand – I want them to feel involved. If they’re not happy they’re not going to be learning either.”

She adds: “Introducing bilingualism to children at a very early age actually enhances their learning in my experience.”

While Dwynwen says in order to “get on in the world” children must have both languages, beginning with Welsh is important, both for practical and cultural reasons.

She says: “It’s your home language it’s something that connects you with your roots and something that you build on throughout your life.”

Sowing the seeds 

For all its benefits, bilingualism is not something the majority of childcare providers can offer, nor is it something the vast majority of parents will expect – but it is still worth considering.

Anna Neville, CEO and founder of Kidslingo, which teaches French and Spanish to 12,000 children aged 0 to 11 each week, believes it can “sow the seeds for a love of languages”. 

She says: “We want to instil in them that languages are something to be embraced, so they can take that on later in their education and their lives.”.

From offering immersive programmes and weekly classes, to learning a few words in a child’s first language, how childcare professionals approach languages in their settings is vital in supporting the language-learning potential of the children in their care; get it right and they can tap into a multitude of advantages that will endure for the rest of their lives

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