Understanding Early Childhood Bilingualism

“She’s confused! She always mixes her languages and can’t keep them separate!” [I’m gonna ganar you. He goes home a las cuatro. She’s chuping her dedo.]

“She doesn’t really even know English. She says things that don’t sound right.” [Get down from the car. I have 3 years. I’m gonna win you.]

“She keeps using the words in the wrong order!” [I want the pencil blue.]

“He’s delayed. I think it’s because he is trying to speak both languages.” [Child knows fewer words in English than a child that is only exposed to English]

“He doesn’t say it right. I think he has a speech problem.” [estar, eskate, jellow]

I’m constantly struck by the negative way that I hear teachers and administrators talk about their students who are growing up learning and using two languages, also known as dual language learners (DLLs). Their comments are often based on myths that they’ve heard throughout their time working with children—or even from their own experiences as bilinguals. The truth is that being bilingual boasts a number of benefits, all of which are supported by decades of research, and as early childhood educators and advocates, we should learn about the process of becoming bilingual as well as what we can do to support this process in children. This article focuses on developing an understanding of what it means to be bilingual (and I’ll focus on English and Spanish for this one).

DLLs are intelligent little scholars in training. They play with language, just as they play physically by themselves and with their peers. They take what they know in one language and they apply it to another. Sometimes they have a model (e.g., a teacher, a parent, a friend) who tells them or shows them how to say/write/read something in one or both languages. Through various combinations of experiences, they use these languages for different reasons and often use one better than another. Because DLLs are growing up with two languages and surrounded by people who use both languages (even if only one language is used at school and the other at home), they fluidly use both languages to express themselves and to be understood. This means that these children invent bilingual words (printiar [to print], parquiar [to park]), say things in one language that sound like another (llamar para atrás due to the literal translation from Spanish of “call back”), use different word orders (from the example above, the pencil blue, based on the standard word order of Spanish), use both languages together (many people know this as either Spanglish or code-switching), and/or pronounce words in ways that are influenced from one of the languages (eskate since the blend “sk” never comes at the beginning of a word in Spanish or jellow since the English y sound doesn’t exist in Spanish).

Moreover, neither DLLs nor older bilinguals have perfectly equal knowledge and ability in each language. Because of this fact, a child may know more or be able to do more in one of the languages he uses. For example, in completing language assessments, all words that a student knows should be counted, not just the ones in English. It may be that the child uses more words in Spanish than in English, even though he knows words in both languages. This is important to know, because when everything that a student knows and can do across all of her languages is counted, DLLs know and can do just as much as their monolingual peers—and often more!

So next time a child reads, writes, or says something that sounds different (let’s move away from the word wrong), ask yourself what language(s) other than English she uses. Here are some questions that may be helpful:

  • What is the typical word order in that language?
  • Are there sounds that exist in that language but not in English? Are there sounds that exist in English but not in the other language? What are they?
  • In what direction does print work in the language other than English? (right to left, top to bottom?)
  • What resources can you use to determine what the child knows in the language other than English?
  • Is the child able to communicate what he knows, even if he uses a combination of languages?

Then, when you know some of these answers, ask yourself, in what creative/intelligent ways is the student showing what he knows/can do (mixing languages, inventing new words that are a combination of the two languages)? Flipping our perspective is key so that we are focused on students’ strengths. When we understand bilingualism for what it is—the ability to use two or more languages to different extents for a variety of purposes—we can be supportive of our students’ development.

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