Find Ways to Support the Youngest Dual Language Learners

A new working paper from the Center for Early Care and Education Research-Dual Language Learners focuses on the development of infants and toddlers who are dual language learners (DLLs). The authors indicate that there is very little research that has been done concerning the development of DLL infants and toddlers. As more DLL infants and toddlers participate in early care and education programs such as Early Head Start, home visiting programs, and child care, it is important for teachers, home visitors, and caregivers to keep in mind that parents from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds may hold different beliefs than program staff about how to facilitate their baby’s development. Designing culturally sensitive infant and toddler care and education programs is very important for many families for whom English is not their heritage language. The following suggestions may assist staff members as they build positive relationships with DLL infants and toddlers and their families.

  • Staff members working in programs that serve DLL infants and toddlers need to acknowledge the strengths that the family brings to the child’s health and overall wellness. Families of DLL infants and toddlers may have language development goals for their child (e.g., learning how to speak in both languages). Therefore early care and education staff members should support and consciously reinforce parents’ choices to speak the heritage language to their infants and toddlers. Research tells us there are increased cognitive benefits for children who are bilingual. Home visitors and teachers can point out the positive outcomes for a baby’s language and cognitive development when her parents consistently speak to her in their heritage language.
  • For some DLL families, there are few infant/toddler books or DVDs available in the United States that are in their particular heritage language. Using a camera, smartphone, or tablet, home visitors and teachers can work together with the family to create simple picture books with photos of the child, his family members, friends, pets, clothing, and other favorite items. These simple picture books may help parents facilitate vocabulary development through responsive parent and child interactions in the heritage language. Home visitors and teachers may also enjoy helping families create brief videos or audio recordings of the parent and toddler singing simple songs in the heritage language. These resources may provide an important step to help parents consciously use their heritage language with their toddler.

We clearly need more research to determine the most effective program features that would enhance the quality of care and education for DLL infants and toddlers and their families. We still have much to learn about the unique strengths that DLL infants and toddlers may have and how to optimally support their families during the earliest years of their child’s life.

Bernie Laumann

Dr. Bernadette M. Laumann is the coordinator of the Illinois Early Learning Project. She has been a child care teacher, an early childhood special education teacher, director of an inclusive early childhood program, researcher, and university teacher educator. Her research interests include mentoring and induction activities for beginning teachers and the use of technology in connecting evidence-based practice.