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Support, Don’t Shush Multilingual Kids

Exposure to Mother Tongue Helps English Language Development

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Research presented by Prof. Allyssa McCabe in a recent report shows that multilingual children are most successful when taught both their mother tongue and a new language such as English.

By Julia Gavin

Children who grow up hearing and speaking multiple languages fluently have an advantage over their monolingual classmates, according to research conducted by Allyssa McCabe, professor of psychology

“The best way for a child to excel at English is to be good at their own native language,” writes McCabe on the Child and Family Blog. “The message from academic research is that, at home, smart parents should stick with the language they know best — English will take care of itself in time — and be better as a result.”

McCabe’s research, done in partnership with fellow scholars in language development, is the basis for the latest social policy report called Multilingual Children: Beyond Myths and Towards Best Practices, published by the Society for Research in Child Development. The report discusses opportunities and challenges for the children, best practices for parents and caregivers and recommendations for policies influencing the country’s more than 11.2 million multilingual children. The report is endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, encouraging health workers to share their message.

The number of children ages 5 through 17 living in non-English speaking homes rose 138 percent from 1980 to 2009 in the United States. These children speak more than 350 languages, but are often forced to lose their parents’ language, called the mother language, in favor of English, due to educational and cultural pressures. 

While children who hear fluent and varied conversation in multiple languages are able to learn one or more simultaneously, those who hear little of their mother language or low quality English do not have the same advantages. This is often the result of parents being told to avoid speaking their mother language with children. Parents for whom English is not a first language may prioritize English, while they are still learning it, resulting in subtractive multilingualism or the loss of a child’s native tongue. This can lead to many problems within the child’s family, community and school for all involved.

“If you downgrade your heritage language,” says McCabe, “you deprive a child of access to a whole lot of enriching experiences that can also impact on their reading ability and access to the school curriculum."

Also, multilingual children growing up in poverty often begin school behind their peers and may never catch up academically. Therefore, better and earlier support for maintaining a mother language while learning English, or additive multilingualism, is needed.  

Reading to and with babies and young children is an invaluable opportunity to expand children’s vocabularies, build their narrative skills and improve their literacy in many areas. McCabe says that there are many reasons parents might struggle reading to their children in either their native language or English, but there are ways around the difficulty. 

“Take Cambodians, for example — the Khmer Rouge destroyed reading material and killed many of the people who could read. So, many parents cannot read and don’t have access to books,” writes McCabe, who has worked with many cultural communities, including Southeast Asians. “For them, the best advice is to speak to their children in Khmer. In short, telling parents to read with children is not nearly as important as parents talking about whatever is of interest to the children. If a child is interested in trucks, talk about trucks. If they aren’t, don’t talk about trucks. Just talk about what matters to them.”

Language an Indicator of Lifelong Success 

Early language development can have long-term effects far beyond literacy. Research indicates that multilinguals have greater brain tissue density in the language, memory and attention areas of the brain. People exposed to a second language before the age of 5 have the highest density. Also, switching between languages, often negatively associated with confusion in multilingual speech, is in fact indicative of increased linguistic and cognitive control.

“Multilingual children develop separate, but related, linguistic systems,” says McCabe, “allowing them to learn a new language without interfering with the development of the first.”

As multilingualism continues to grow in the United States, more research and support of learning styles is necessary, says McCabe’s report. She says that more collaborative research must be done with federal support to acknowledge the country’s growing multilingual community. This can be a difficult sell in a country where only 20 percent of the population speaks more than one language, lagging behind the worldwide figure of 66 percent. This is a disadvantage in our increasingly global world, but there are ways to promote positive language development in multilingual children.

Recommendations to Teachers and Caregivers for Children’s Success

Identifying teachers and caregivers as vital influencers in a child’s development, McCabe and her fellow researchers outline steps to support additive multilingualism. Many recommendations are similar to common practices in monolingual environments, so this support does not need to be a burden to schools and early childhood care centers. 

Exposing multilingual children to both languages in enriching and varied situations is the basis of their success. This requires a supportive environment that uses both languages evenly and with respect. Visits to areas where a child’s mother tongue is the dominant language are important, as they may begin to favor English without positive exposure to it. Caregivers should speak to children in whichever language they are most comfortable using, but also arrange for exposure to high-quality English from an early age. Most importantly, authority figures and educators should treat multilingualism as a strength, not a weakness, and avoid attributing any language delays to a child’s dual learning environment.

McCabe and her colleagues say that spreading the importance of early language experience to multiple audiences is vital to their success. The report recommends using multiple platforms to reach multilingual families, including mass media and health care workers and targeted access through home visitation and early childhood education curriculum.

“Sharing these insights is vital, given that many parents may feel their own language is less prestigious than English,” says McCabe. “They don’t realize that it is a wonderful gift, a great tool that they have brought with them.”

For more research on families and children visit the Child and Family Blog, where McCabe is a contributing writer.