If you are raising your child in a dual-language household, you are giving them a gift. Not only are you connecting them to multiple rich traditions, you are giving their brain a healthy workout.

But you might also wonder how a preschool environment will affect your child’s languages — as well as their connections to family, community, and culture.

Partnering with your child’s teachers can help to ensure that your child’s language skills and cultural confidence continue to grow. Here are some ideas to consider.

Approach the school and ask to meet with teachers before your child’s first day.
A conversation before your child starts the preschool program gives you a chance to explain how your child communicates. Every dual language learner is different — some may speak (or understand) more of one language than another. This information will help teachers put a child’s behavior in context—for example, a child may not put his coat on when asked because he didn’t understand the instructions or is not yet confident enough in English to ask for help.

Provide teachers with a list of common words your child uses in their home language.
Create a list of words — along with a simple guide to pronouncing them — that your child uses frequently to have their needs met. For example, your list might include words for: mommy, daddy, breakfast/lunch, hungry, water/thirsty, hurt/sick/tired, diaper/potty, etc. You might even offer to record yourself pronouncing each word and text or email these recordings to the teacher as a reference.

If your child is starting school with very limited English vocabulary, remind teachers that they may initially need one-on-one support to participate in daily routines. Simple picture cards can also help with communication until their vocabulary grows.

Finally, ask that teachers avoid using only the home language for limit-setting or discipline — for example, exclusively using the home language word for “stop” or “no.” When a child hears their home language only for discipline purposes in the school setting, it sends a negative message.

Suggest ways you can provide support.
Given how diverse most early childhood programs are, it’s impossible for teachers to learn every language spoken by every student. This creates an opportunity for parents to contribute rich home language experiences. During special times of the year, offer to join the class and share a tradition from your home culture, or to read a story or teach a song or nursery rhyme in this language. Most early education settings have labels on many items in the classrooms as a strategy to build children’s print awareness. You might offer to create labels in your child’s home language for their cubby and materials. Be sure to print these words in a different color than the English labels — over time, your child will learn that “their” languages are both the blue and the green words. Finally, you can offer to share some of your child’s books with the class, or send in empty food boxes or dress-up clothes from your home culture for pretend play.

Set up outside-of-school play opportunities.
It can be challenging to build friendships when you don’t share a language. Consider scheduling peer play opportunities at home to nurture children’s growing bonds. Ask your child’s teacher which child(ren) he seems to play with most and start there. Offer play activities that don’t require a lot of language: outdoor play at the park, playing instruments together, exploring sand and water, building block towers and more.

Make your home a nurturing language environment.
Research shows that children’s home language use begins to drop as they enter formal school settings where English is the primary language. To become truly bilingual, children need rich, consistent exposure to each language. If your child’s school setting mainly uses English, you may choose to emphasize your home language in order to nurture these skills. Children who continue to learn and to use their home language actually learn English better because they have the advantage of the rich cultural vocabulary and knowledge of their families.

Wrapping Up
Our roots are wrapped up in language — the words that were sung to us, the stories told to us, the jokes shared with us. Offering children the opportunity to develop deeper, stronger language roots is truly a gift, and one that research finds to have benefits across a lifespan. When partnering with your child’s teachers on home language issues, collaboration is important. By working together, you can help your child develop strong language skills (times two!).

About Rebecca Parlakian

Rebecca Parlakian is Senior Director of Programs at ZERO TO THREE, where she develops resources, like apps, web-based resources, DVDs, and more, and also trains parents and early childhood professionals. Rebecca holds a Master’s degree in Education and Human Development, with a concentration in infant-toddler special education, from the George Washington University, where she currently serves as adjunct faculty.

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