Let’s nurture multilingualism in our youngest learners

Cortez Deacetis

Courtesy: First5LA

The school year has begun, which for many young children means they have entered a brand-new environment and sometimes are faced with a whole new language to learn. Brain science tells us that learning two or more languages early in life is beneficial, and many school districts are offering dual-language programs to children as young as 4. This is a great opportunity for those children to expand their language skills in a school setting, and I hope districts increase access to more dual-language programs.

For me, however, there is the dual-language learning experience that school districts may not consider but is an everyday reality for the children of parents with limited English proficiency. Dual-language learning is a necessity for children who support their parents by translating the world around them. With more than 60% of children under 5 in California whose parents speak a language other than English — with Asian languages the largest number outside of Spanish — it’s important for early educators to consider these circumstances when welcoming children into their classrooms.

For many young children, especially in the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities, which represent over 50 ethnicities and 100 languages/dialects, navigating language in the U.S. can be complicated. Depending on what generation you are, which culture you come from and/or your parents’ language skills, you may lose your home language once you enter school. Or you may resent your multilingualism because your parents rely on you for tasks beyond your maturity. But early educators can help celebrate dual-language skills by being responsive to each student and honoring the culture and language tied to their community.

My first bilingual teacher was my mother. She immigrated to the U.S. from Japan knowing only her home language. To raise her four children in South Los Angeles, she had to lean on our learned English to help navigate all the health care, financial and social systems not designed for non-English-speaking communities. How difficult for her to have no choice but to put her children in that position? But through this process, she instilled in me the importance of maintaining one’s culture through language.

There are emerging opportunities to support our state’s children who, like me, move between languages and cultures. In 2017, the State Board of Education adopted the English Learner Roadmap, which includes guidelines on how schools can foster multilingualism. Last year, the state passed Assembly Bill 1363 to establish a uniform way to identify dual-language learners in the state’s preschool program. Especially important for the Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community, the Legislature included $5 million in this year’s budget to help prepare bilingual teachers in Asian languages; although this may be a drop in the bucket. Even California Superintendent of Public Schools Tony Thurmond is sharing how multilingualism is good for business.

In Los Angeles County, my organization, First 5 LA, is working with Quality Start Los Angeles on a comprehensive effort to support dual language learning in child care settings. Providing training for providers and their coaches, my favorite part of this effort is that it engages parents. Supporting parents to work with their child’s provider to support multilingualism — both in care and at home — is a crucial component of creating a setting where children feel proud of who they are.

So as many dual-language children adjust to the classroom this month, I implore early educators to support and celebrate the cultures, languages and circumstances of the children in their care. Especially children in the Asian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander communities, who are often seen as the same, but in fact represent many backgrounds.

What’s great is that there are resources out there to help. Early Edge, an early childhood advocacy organization, has developed a comprehensive toolkit in both English and Spanish to support early educators in fostering multilingualism. Quality Start LA also has resources for both early educators and families in English, Spanish and Chinese on its website, including an upcoming series of free hourlong webinars for educators hosted by the Source for Early Learning. The California Association of Bilingual Education also has year-round programming.

Multilingualism is a gift, however a child acquires it, and I’m excited about a time when this is fostered and celebrated in the classroom.


Jonathan Nomachi served as a program officer at First 5 LA, an early childhood advocacy organization, managing capacity-strengthening investments for five under-resourced regions in Los Angeles County. He has spent almost 20 years working with communities of color to advocate for change.

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