“If they only spoke some English…”

In this guest post, Debra Chin, 4C Early Childhood Specialist, shares some thoughts about our work with young dual language learners.

As I was enjoying an end-of-year team gathering at our office, my supervisor decided to facilitate a couple of games to celebrate. One of the games invited us to read a short statement or sentence, and then guess from which Christmas song, book or TV show/movie the sentence was quoted. Being a bilingual, having earned a graduate degree from US, worked in the professional fields for more than two decades, and lived in Cincinnati for almost 30 years, I thought I had been assimilated culturally and linguistically to the local environment. Yet, when I was asked to participate in this game, I felt I was a complete outsider.

Much of my previous life-experience is not rooted from the American culture. My early literacy and language experiences are not derived from the same books, TV shows or movies as most of my colleagues Watching them giggle and have fun talking with each other about their early holiday memories made me feel awkward. This experience reminded me of the young dual language learners (DLLs) in our ECE programs. I wonder how young DLLs would feel and respond when they were asked to sit through the story time or circle time in a language that they were not familiar with. Yet, many early childhood educators are concerned about why our DLLs seldom participate or volunteer to share ideas.

Tips about dual language learners in the classroom

I decided to get up and leave the meeting. Feeling as an outsider is no fun. I wanted to be part of my team, a strong sense of desire to belong creeping to my throat.  Yet, I couldn’t articulate how I felt.  I went to the bathroom, shut the door, and thought of how I could bring myself back to the group.

I am so thankful that my supervisor did not call me back across the room in front of the group when I had to leave the activity. I am so thankful there was a space where I could be alone for a few seconds. I am so thankful that my table-mates accepted my return with some conversation that was relevant to my experiences.  I am so thankful that I have an entire team back me up daily with their understanding and acceptance of me as a mom, as a fellow worker, as a coach, and as an ECE professional. Most importantly, my team has supported me as friends honoring who I am and where I come from.  They appreciate how much I have tried with passion to explore this “forever-new” environment.  I am embraced by a group of people that are always interested and responsive to my inquiry.

Like many children, some of our young DLLs express their feelings through behaviors as they are developing coping skills. Some may withdraw from the situation, and not “participate or engage”; some may fight against the environment, and “not follow the directions.”

In addition to all the learning areas where children are provided with ample opportunities to scaffold through meaningful interactions with their teachers and peers, teachers might also provide a “By Myself Area.” Children need an area where they are not required to be engaged through language, where they can watch how the world is working through a different window other than verbal exploration, and rejuvenate their power of learning. The block area, free art area, and sensory table are some of those locations. The “By Myself Area” becomes extremely crucial to our young DLLs. Posters, pictures, stuffed animals, and picture books added to those areas help young DLLs re-connect to the environment, language or experiences with which they are familiar.

As I was reading those Christmas statements with a stunting and confusing apathy, one of my colleagues noticed my detachment, and whispered into my ear, “Are you OK, Debra? This must be really hard for you. You have no cultural reference for these movies or books.” Many times, when in an unfamiliar situation, empathy is all that DLLs need in order to recover and re-bounce. I felt recognized emotionally because of this colleague’s comments. Young DLLs sometimes just need someone to play by their side, as my table mates had done with me. While developing resilience, like all young children, our young DLLs need support verbally and non-verbally through people around them and the environment where they are embraced. Teachers can ensure this by providing areas where young children can work side-by-side on meaningful activities/materials supported by people and interactions that facilitate their explorations while they are acquiring language, whether is a first or second language.

Young DLLs may not seem to have enough vocabulary in English to express themselves in a way that we understand, but they might have those important words in their heritage language. It is our responsibility to explore these opportunities by asking families to be our resources. Invite families to share their heritage languages as a bridge for DLLs to discover the world and acquire a second language. For example, ask the family to read in their heritage language some of those books used in the classroom. In this way, the young DLL will have an opportunity to construct some knowledge about the new vocabulary prior to being read in a language in which he/she is not quite proficient yet.

Young DLLs may not demonstrate their competence in a way that we are “accustomed’ to, yet their way of learning and reflecting is unique and powerful. As we teach, conduct observations, and nurture talents, we keep pushing ourselves to support all of our children’s development to the best. At the same time, the experience of working with DLLs enables both children and educators to expand horizons and generate multiple perspectives which increases the ability of comparison, contrast, and greater cognitive flexibility. Bilingualism or multilingualism is an asset for our local community and the global village. Developing bilinguals/multilinguals takes energy, patience and passion. It is a privilege to be part of this inspiring journey. May we all enjoy this ride to construct knowledge about our world through the work with our young dual language learners.