Children who begin learning more than one language prior to the age of five are defined as dual language learners (McManis, 2012). This text uses the term multilingual learners because it is more inclusive and recognizes that some children may speak more than two languages across their home, school, and community environments. Some children are exposed to more than one language from birth, and others are introduced to a new language upon entry to an early learning setting (Castro, Garcia, & Marcos, 2013; Genessee, 2010). English Language Learner is another term used to describe a child who is immersed in English at formal school entry or later and whose home language is not English (Halle et al, 2012). In other words, when the exposure to a different language occurs during the preschool years and younger, we would define them as multilingual learners. Once they enter the K-12 education system, they may be identified as English Language Learners. Recognizing that some children will come to classroom contexts with more than one language is important because when children are learning more than one language, their trajectory of development differs from that of monolingual children.
7.5a1 Receptive language in multilingual children. Young children have a pre-wired or innate capability of learning more than one language from birth, and young children may become proficient in more than one language if multiple language exposure occurs in quantity, and with quality (Espinosa, 2013). Infants who are bilingual develop two separate but connected linguistic systems (Conboy, 2006). Because bilingual children must develop neural pathways and connections that are different from monolingual children, their cognitive development will also look different from that of monolingual children. Research demonstrates that acquiring multiple languages influences cognitive and linguistic learning mechanisms (Espinosa, 2013) and results in advantages that are evident in cognitive development (Bialystok, 2009).
7.5a2 Productive/expressive language learning in multilingual children. As children enter new language environments or negotiate multiple languages, educators may notice differences in expressive language. Listening and comprehension tend to develop first. Educators may notice a child appears reticent to engage verbally in a new language environment preferring to silently observe and listen to their peers and educators talking around them. Frequently referred to as the silent period, it is an important learning space for children as they are internalizing the common phonological and grammatical patterns of the new language. During this time, a child’s expressive language may seem to be lagging behind, particularly at school, and even at home. But, it is important to remember children are using this time to develop their vocabulary across languages. The younger a child is, the longer the silent period might last, thus it is commonly observed in early learning settings (American Speech, Language and Hearing Association n.d.).
While multilingual children may present differently than monolingual children in terms of literacy development, it is important to consider their whole language context; failure to do so might result in an early childhood educator interpreting perceived differences as a language delay (Espinosa, 2013). For example, multilingual children may appear to have smaller vocabularies if only one language is assessed. However, when educators evaluate a child’s combined vocabulary knowledge across language contexts, the true depth of their language knowledge is recognized. Similarly, multilingual children may take a little longer to articulate their ideas when speaking because the child is working to determine which language to use in the current situation. The process multilingual children use to move from language to language is called code switching and it is an additional processing task for children (Castro, 2013). The additional cognitive challenge of moving between two languages is positively associated with executive function and cognitive flexibility (Espinosa, 2013). Therefore, it is important for educators to allow children who speak multiple languages more time to communicate their ideas and provide additional wait time when completing word retrieval vocabulary assessments (Espinosa, 2013).
In addition to code switching, some children might also blend the languages in a process called code mixing (Peterson, 1988). A child may start out speaking one language and switch to the other or insert vocabulary from one language into a sentence that begins with the other language. For example, a child may say, “Quiero cookie” to indicate the desire for a cookie instead of completing the entire phrase in English, or the entire phrase in Spanish. Parents, teachers, or other adults may perceive code mixing as evidence of a delay or a problem (McManis, 2012). However, children who are code mixing sometimes do so within a context where they might be expected to be understood. A child who says, “more leche” can reasonably anticipate that adults will discern the desire for milk. Even when vocabulary words are inserted, children retain the larger set of language rules for each of their languages internally (McManis, 2012). Thus, code mixing should be an indicator that children are still building vocabulary and progressing with their language development while creating their internal maps for each language.
Young children are in an ideal window, or sensitive period, for mastering the functions and structures of language (Conboy & Kuhl, 2011). While there may be differences in how quickly children who speak multiple languages communicate, there are no apparent differences between multilingual and monolingual children’s phonological awareness or decoding skills (Espinosa, 2013). The same is true for the developmental window of first word occurrences. The early language skill development of multilingual children, including semantics, syntax, phonological awareness, and morphology, provide a child with the ability to think about their language understanding. Moreover, the ability to both comprehend and think about language will be applied to both languages (Lopez & Greenfield, 2004).
The long-term gains for multiple languages are compelling—they are evident in cognition and culture and may have economic implications for the child later on (Bialystok, 2009). Some teachers may worry that if a child is not speaking English now, they will have difficulty with English later on. In fact, children do eventually learn English. Learning more than one language does not ultimately hamper the ability to learn English or to perform well on academic tasks when home and school languages are supported (Barnett et al, 2007). Children who are English Language learners keep pace or surpass native English speakers if they are proficient in English by Kindergarten (Halle et al, 2012). Therefore, allowing children to communicate across languages is a valuable practice for educators to encourage.
Pause and Consider: Pumpkin, Pumpkin
Ms. Katrina held 22-month-old Sebastian on her lap, reading to him during the quiet morning in her two-year-old classroom. She pointed to the pictures in the board book and said, “pumpkin.” Sebastian looked back at her with shining eyes and pointed to the picture and smiled. He did not reply. Repeatedly through the book, Katrina pointed out pumpkins and prompted Sebastian to say, “Pumpkin.” Not only was Sebastian unwilling to repeat the word, “pumpkin,” while book-reading, but Ms. Katrina noticed that Sebastian had very little to say at school. Ms. Katrina asked the family if Sebastian talked at home, and mom immediately expressed her worry. Mom said that at home he pointed to items and would say, “Mama” or “Daddy,” but he was generally very quiet. Mom indicated that she was worried Sebastian would “not learn English.” The parents and Katrina worked together to refer Sebastian for an evaluation for early intervention services to determine if there was a language delay. Later that same week, the classroom went to a pumpkin farm for a field trip. Sebastian walked over to a very large pumpkin in the front and loudly said, “Cabasasa,” an approximation of the Spanish word for pumpkin, “calabaza.” He then started to giggle and put his hands on many of the large and small pumpkins right around him, each time calling out “Cabasasa!”
What assessments could the teacher make about Sebastian’s language development? What questions could the teacher ask the family that would have provided more helpful information? What assumptions should the teacher avoid? What should the teacher’s orientation be to this student’s needs?