To Speak or Not To Speak My Home Language: Supporting Families Home Language
As a researcher who examines families’ language practices and their impact on children’s emerging bilingualism and multilingualism, I work with Latino/a families who often have questions about home language maintenance. Many of these families are recent immigrants. Recognizing the power of English in the United States, they wonder if they should continue to speak their home languages or focus on English. They also voice concerns about their children’s abilities to develop two (or more) languages at a young age. They worry children might get confused or delayed in their English language development.
Contrary to these concerns, research has shown that young children are adept at learning multiple languages. Moreover, maintaining children’s cultural and linguistic heritages leads to stronger identity development and long-term academic success. This, in turn, contributes to rich early learning communities that value families’ funds of knowledge. It is why NAEYC’s position statement on advancing equity recommends that early childhood educators communicate the value of multilingualism so that “families of emergent bilinguals understand the academic benefits and the significance of supporting their child’s home language as English is introduced through the early childhood program.”
Equity-minded educators understand the power of families’ home languages. By encouraging families to speak to their children in the languages in which they feel most competent and comfortable, they help children make sense of their multicultural heritage. In this article, I offer strategies teachers can use to create learning communities that welcome and support families’ home languages as children develop their English-speaking skills.
Multilingualism as Part of Developmentally Appropriate Practice
Families’ language choices depend on multiple factors, including historical and current inequities that have shaped the US educational system. Traditionally, schools advised families to change their language of choice because the focus was on learning English as quickly as possible. For example, I grew up in a town on the border of Texas and Mexico. My home language was Spanish. When I entered school, my parents were told I was “behind” due to my lack of English skills. They were encouraged to speak only English with me. As a result, I lost most of my Spanish-speaking abilities. Essentially, I was denied the opportunity to become bilingual because educators did not understand how my home language skills could help me learn my second language, English. Although many educators see the value in home language maintenance, these scenarios still occur across this country.
Families also must contend with young children who increase their English skills at the expense of their home language. Research has shown that emergent bilingual and multilingual children often move rapidly toward favoring the language spoken at school before they develop a strong foundation in their home language. This can lead to difficulties in communicating with their families, and it may impact future learning. To offset this tendency, emergent bilingual and multilingual children need to be exposed to all of their languages consistently to support both the maintenance of the home language and the development of English.
Equitable teaching and learning compel early childhood educators to embrace children’s home languages as they are exposed to English. Recognizing that home languages enhance children’s self-expression and learning, they work to support and sustain children’s connections to their cultures, languages, and families. This is part of the developmentally appropriate practice (DAP) framework.
The following are strategies that educators can use to recognize and support children’s home languages in the classroom. These are gleaned from my research, the broader research literature on multilingualism, and expectations and recommendations for early childhood educators outlined in NAEYC’s recent position statements. (See “Further Resources” below.)
Be Curious and Make Time to Learn About Families
Ms. Cantú, a Spanish/English bilingual teacher, invites families into the classroom at the start of each school year. She does this to get to know everyone and, more importantly, to let families know they will become partners with her in their children’s learning and development. Some families feel more ready and able to participate than others. Mrs. Linares, a recent immigrant from El Salvador, worries that she has nothing to offer her child’s teacher. To allay her fears, Ms. Cantú asks questions that highlight the mother’s expertise, such as “What does your child like to do at home?” and “What does your child like to talk about, and in what language?” She also shows Mrs. Linares around the classroom and shares examples of what her child is learning. During this visit, Mrs. Linares mentions using an herb garden for various teas. Ms. Cantú invites her to return during the class’s plant unit to share about herbs and their uses with the children.
Before teachers can address instruction and learning environments for emerging bilingual and multilingual children, they must get to know the children and families in their programs. This will help develop positive, reciprocal relationships and provide teachers with the knowledge of families’ contexts, strengths, and skills to integrate into their settings.
Inviting individual families to visit at the beginning of the year is helpful. Many immigrant families do not yet know the expectations in the US school context. They may not realize they can and should visit their children’s classroom. Ms. Cantú’s invitation signals “you are welcome, and I want to learn from you.” Educators can also offer alternative locations and times to meet together. During this time, educators can ask questions to learn about families’ contexts and develop meaningful connections with them. (See “Questions to Get to Know Multilingual Families” below.)
Connecting a child’s program or school experiences to their home and community settings will help build on families’ cultural and linguistic assets. Throughout the year, teachers can continue to connect with families through different avenues (in person, by phone or video call, in emails or text messages, or visiting outside the program) to share their stories of children’s development. This creates further opportunities for them to learn about the cultural and linguistic resources families and their children draw from daily.
Questions to Get to Know Multilingual Families
Early childhood educators can gain valuable knowledge about families and their language practices by inviting them to share their backgrounds, routines, and experiences. Their answers can invoke powerful tales of a family’s resiliency and resourcefulness and establish who their networks are within the community. One caveat: It is not appropriate to ask about a family’s immigration status.
Questions could include the following:
- Can you tell me about yourself?
- What language(s) do you speak in your home?
- What are some things you’d like me to know about the language(s) your family speaks?
- Who are some of the important people in your child’s life?
- What are some important things you’d like me to know about your child?
- What are some activities your child likes to do on their own and with other people?
- What are your favorite things to do as a family?
- Are there certain times of the year that are special to your family?
- Are there certain places, near or far, that your child likes to visit? What do they like to do there?
- How does your family like to communicate with each other and with people outside of the family?
Communicate the Value of Multilingualism
Mariela is a 41-year-old migrant worker who immigrated to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, looking for work and a better life for her family. She now works on a strawberry farm in Florida. Her 4-year-old daughter, Alicia, is enrolled in a local Spanish/English Head Start program.
Mariela’s first language is Mixtec, an Indigenous Oaxacan language. Spanish is her second language. Mariela struggles with the idea of teaching Mixtec to her daughter, which would give Alicia the opportunity to be multilingual. Mariela says she wants to spare her daughter the discrimination she felt when she arrived in this country. At home, she only speaks Mixtec with her husband and adult family members. After listening to her concerns, Alicia’s teacher suggests that Mariela speak with Alicia in Mixtec. She encourages Mariela to sing songs and rhymes, ask open-ended questions, and engage in child-directed conversations.
Studies have shown that one of the key predictors of an emergent bilingual or multilingual learner’s future academic success is the quality of their experiences with their home language. By encouraging families to use their home languages, early childhood educators show that they value children’s diverse languages and multilingual identities. In an ideal world, teachers would speak with children in their home languages; however, strategies are available to support children’s language maintenance regardless of a teacher’s language abilities. They can learn some words or phrases from the children’s home languages to communicate the value of multilingualism. They can ask family members to share some basic phrases, such as “good morning” and “thank you,” which can be incorporated into daily routines.
Teachers can also create playful learning spaces where children can use their entire linguistic repertoire when engaging with others. These might include
- creating culturally relevant play spaces. Families can send in pictures and labels from items in their homes to add to these areas. They can also help label classroom areas and materials in their home languages.
- encouraging peer interactions where children can practice their oral language skills in risk-free spaces without fear of correction.
Engage with Families in Designing and Implementing Learning Activities
Many Mexican families celebrate Día de las Madres, or Mother’s Day, twice a year. In Mexico, it is celebrated on May 10; in the US, it is celebrated on the second Sunday of May. Mrs. Vela, a Head Start teacher, asks children’s families to integrate their cultural knowledge and practices around Día de las Madres into learning activities. This includes storytelling, performances using songs, poems, and creating homemade cards.
Creating a culturally responsive and emotionally supportive climate for multilingual children and their families is vital for them to feel comfortable, accepted, safe, and connected to the learning setting. Teachers can partner with families to share their funds of knowledge in a variety of ways. For example,
- families can share music, songs, or rhymes in their home languages
- children can create artwork or crafts using techniques or designs from the cultures represented in the classroom
- children can reenact scenes from a favorite story or dicho (saying) that they have learned at home
- families can record themselves reading books in their home languages
These asset-focused instructional activities place families’ language practices at the forefront of family-educator collaboration. As seen in the vignette, they also engage families in meaningful learning activities that reflect home language practices, cultures, and beliefs.
Early childhood educators are challenged to recognize and respond to the diversity in today’s classrooms and communities. Families should not feel that they need to forego teaching their children their home languages. Educators can and should enact equitable practices by leveraging the cultural and linguistic wealth children have developed. Fostering a space where children see themselves reflected leads to the creation of affirming environments, activities, and assessments for all children.