Bilingualism in the Early Years – a free book extract


Early years settings have an important role to play in supporting children as emerging bilinguals, working with parents to enhance opportunities across the spectrum of their language development. In this free extract from Alliance publication, Bilingualism in the Early Years, Stephanie Mathivet describes the key principles of a successful approach to bilinguality in early years settings.


The Early Years Foundation Stage makes provision, albeit limited, to support children’s home languages. In order to develop this and make it work in practice, not just to help children to learn English, but to support their bilingual development, practitioners need to be informed, committed and have plenty of strategies and resources they can use.

Underpinning such development lie five key principles which give due consideration to children’s rights and entitlements to maintain the language of the home and community, as well as learn English, so that they may grow up to be fully bilingual.


  1. Bilinguality, rather than just bilingualism, should be promoted as a right for all children

Bilinguality is about being bilingual in a holistic sense, rather than just being able to master the technicalities of two languages. At the core of this holistic approach is the idea that the cultural and social contexts of the language we speak lie at the heart of our developing sense of shared identity with others. Bilinguals experience many advantages over monolinguals, so bilinguality is about the richness of one’s life experience as a bilingual.


  1. Being bilingual carries social, cultural and cognitive advantages

Knowing how your first language is structured makes it easier to learn additional languages, and understanding how another language is structured also leads to greater metalinguistic awareness (a more sharply-tuned understanding of how language works). There are also cognitive advantages as bilinguals have more than one language in which to think and solve problems. They also benefit from being able to use different cultural perspectives to address problems. This allows bilinguals to develop a diffuse awareness. People who are bilingual can fit into different societies. Speaking the right language is the key to this, not just for communication, but for understanding cultural mores and being able to participate in different cultural environments.


  1. Home language development is critical to learning English as an additional language

Cognitive functioning is dependent on first language development, as language is the tool we use for thinking and understanding the world. If the child’s first language is not sufficiently developed and English is introduced too early on, the child will not build up cognitive skills other than basic communicative functioning, as their major tool for thinking is undermined. This may also negatively affect self-esteem which may have an impact on how the child approaches learning throughout the curriculum.


  1. Parental and community involvement is crucial

Success in maintaining the home language depends on parental input. Parents must feel strongly about their language and culture and give positive messages to children. They need to understand the advantages of being bilingual, especially if their languages carry lower status in the country where they live. Parents can and do informally support their child’s home language through books, videos and games, for example. Siblings also provide excellent models and talk partners for younger children and should be encouraged to speak in their community language at home. Communities can offer social opportunities to promote the maintenance of the language, for example by offering home language recreational provision or more formal classes, and can also lobby local and national government to improve provision.


  1. Home language is important for children with special needs

Bilingualism is not a learning difficulty; it is a learning achievement. It is important that practitioners caring for young bilinguals have an informed approach to supporting their whole language development and can develop appropriate methods of assessment and recognition of learning difficulties as well as the right level of support. Children may need assessing in their home language and interpreters may be needed to ensure parents understand the implications for their child. The home language is important as it is the language that parents speak best and therefore provides the best input for their child.


This is a free extract from Alliance publication Bilingualism in the Early Years.

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