Learning & Development: Communication - Part 5 - Think twice

Helen Moylett
Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Let the home language into the nursery for children communicating bilingually, says Helen Moylett

It has been estimated that about two-thirds of the world's population speaks more than one language. People may be bilingual (fluent in two languages) and/or able to understand and make themselves understood, in several more. This ability to switch between languages enriches our social and cultural life and breaks down barriers. It should be a cause for celebration. Learning more than one language does not hinder the development of young children's speech and language skills. In fact, bilingualism can bring many benefits.

Many practitioners already work successfully with children and families who speak languages other than English. In some settings one or two language groups may be represented; in some the population may be linguistically and culturally diverse; and in others, working with children and families at various stages of proficiency, English is a new experience. However, all early years settings can effectively create a culture that values and celebrates the languages spoken by children in order to support the communication skills of those learning English as an Additional Language (EAL), as well as to enrich the language experience of all the children.

Many of the practical ideas provided here are from the Every Child A Talker guidance and Supporting children learning English as an additional language: Guidance for practitioners in the EYFS (DCSF 2007). Four key principles relating to both learning EAL and the EYFS themes illustrate how practitioners should value and support each Unique Child, encourage Positive Relationships between parents, children and staff, create Enabling Environments that support language learning, and plan appropriate Learning and Development opportunities. Like all other children, those learning English as an additional language learn best where every aspect of EYFS practice is of high quality.


Key principle: Bilingualism is an asset, and the first language has a continuing and significant role in identity, learning and the acquisition of additional languages.

From the moment a practitioner (particularly if they are a childminder or key person) meets a baby or young child, they begin to notice individuality and personality. If you do not share a common language with a baby, your speech sounds may be strange initially but babies are able to tune in quickly to other languages. (We gradually 'tune out' those we don't hear regularly). Whether or not you have a shared language, your body language and tone of voice will reassure and comfort young children as well as their families. A smile is a smile in any language!

The challenge may be to go beyond the stepping stone of the smile to ensure that children are making good progress and that as a key person you can build effective relationships - sometimes with minimal resources of shared language.

One good way to start can be to learn a few words of the children's home languages. Parents are usually only too happy to help. One of the early language lead practitioners involved in Every Child A Talker in Luton explained some of the benefits of getting parents involved in teaching practitioners: 'We asked parents to help us communicate with their children by teaching us at least ten words and phrases in their home language. One mother, who comes from a Gujarati-speaking background, was delighted to be asked to teach us some basic phrases in her mother tongue. Her two-year-old son was quite shy and quiet, but his face lit up when we said a few words in Gujarati. The families appreciate the effort we are making to find out about their cultures. It gives a clear message that we value all families' backgrounds, and this has helped to improve our relationships with families. It boosts the children's confidence as communicators too.'

This sort of positive start can be built on in all sorts of ways. Some settings, for instance, have a language poster and ask parents to add phrases they want to know. Some parents may not have a written language or are unable to write well in their home language. Getting them to tape phrases may be more comfortable for them and make it easier for practitioners to practise pronunciation.

However one does it, it is important to foster a setting culture where all staff and children feel comfortable and unselfconscious about hearing and using other languages.

A language learned before the age of three is generally described as the 'first' language. Languages learned after that are usually known as second or additional languages. The better developed the first language, the easier it is to learn the additional one, as the ways in which language works are embedded and can be used by the child for reference. Some children will be learning two or more languages from birth and be bilingual in two first languages. Whatever their language background, children who do not speak English will probably feel confused at first in a busy setting. It is the job of practitioners to minimise that confusion and strangeness and maximise the child's natural desire to communicate.

Pause for thought

Do you:

  • - record detailed language background and home language use, preferences and skills on admission to the setting?
  • - check the spelling and the pronunciation of children's and parents' names?
  • - reassure parents that using home languages in the setting will support their child's overall learning and developing use of language, including English?

For young children, knowing their first language is valued is vital in helping them learn English, and it's fine for them to hear it and speak it in the setting. Sometimes, though, practitioners may be concerned that children are not speaking to them at all or do not seem to use their home language or English. The table opposite sets out some examples of common concerns and appropriate actions.


Key Principle Secure and trusting relationships with a key person are vital to a child's development in all areas. Bilingual support is a highly desirable resource but it has to be accepted that appropriate first language support may not be available

As a key person, you build good relationships primarily by being emotionally available to the children in your group. They know you are there for them and care about them. Understanding babies' and young children's daily routines, particularly around meal times, toileting and sleep, are essential to meet individual needs. Parents are almost always ready to discuss what is best for their children and will appreciate your interest.

It is important to find out about a young child's abilities in their home language when they first come to your setting so that you can build on their prior learning. You can encourage and create opportunities for children to interact with peers or adults who speak their home language.

If you, or any colleagues, share a child's home language, or if you are able to access bilingual support, children should be helped as soon as possible to understand that they are learning to speak more than one language and that those languages have names. This is an important part of their identity. You can help children to make relationships with other children from whom they can learn English in small groups and pairs and you can build good relationships between staff and parents using the support of interpreters or other bilingual speakers.


The following case study from the London borough of Waltham Forest (where over 160 languages are spoken) illustrates the importance of knowing when to use an interpreter.

The children's centre and nursery is ethnically diverse, with about 60 per cent of children learning English as an additional language, at different stages. Families are mainly of Pakistani and Polish heritage, and in the nursery there are bilingual practitioners who speak Urdu.

Practitioners had been using the ECAT monitoring tool to track children's progress and were unsure whether Qi had some language delay and needed a referral to speech and language therapy. They knew that Qi's mother spoke Mandarin and that it was important to speak with her to understand Qi's development and use of language at home. They found an interpreter and arranged the meeting for a time that suited Qi and his mother.

During the meeting practitioners gained information about Qi's language skills and were also able to answer questions that his mother posed. This meeting also enabled the early language lead practitioner to find out more about Qi's cultural and linguistic background. She discovered that his mother was in fact Vietnamese but had learned Mandarin to communicate with Qi's father, and this was the main language they used at home. She had used Mandarin to speak to Qi since he was a baby. The interpreter also discussed with practitioners Qi's mother's proficiency in Mandarin as a language model for Qi. The early language lead was able to build her relationship with this family through the meeting and to use it as a means to discuss and share communication and language learning strategies.

Commenting on the meeting, the lead said: 'It was fascinating and really valuable to learn more about Qi and his family and background. We had Qi's older brother through our nursery two years ago and we did not have this information about the family and their language background. We're now able to support Qi better at nursery and work with his mum to extend his learning at home.'

Pause for thought

  • - Do you know which languages all the children hear or speak, and where? For example, they may hear and/or use their home language or dialect with older relatives, English with siblings, another formal or standard language for TV and perhaps another for worship.
  • - Do you appreciate the level of trust parents must have in you if they cannot always make their day-to-day needs and anxieties known?
  • - Have you considered what your setting must sound like and feel like to young children and their families if they cannot understand much of what is being said?
  • - Do all staff appreciate how tiring it is to listen to a language one cannot understand for long periods?
  • - What does everyone do to make families who do not speak English feel truly welcome?


Key principle The physical environment should include play and learning resources that positively reflect the children's cultural and linguistic identity and experiences.

Creating an enabling environment to support children learning English as an additional language is not that different from creating a communication-friendly environment for all children. But making small adaptations to your physical resources as well as to the ways that staff speak and interact with children can be helpful.

The physical learning environment should give all children the opportunity to make independent choices; this will enable you to observe what interests a child has and begin to develop the language that will support those activities.

Both indoor and outdoor environments should include resources that reflect the variety of heritages in the setting. For example, role-play equipment could include community language newspapers and food packets with a variety of scripts. Model how to use these things appropriately and show your respect for all the languages in your setting, such as knowing which scripts are read from right to left.

Dual-language books should be discussed with all children, not just those learning EAL, and all books should reflect positive images of a variety of people from different backgrounds. Storytelling in outdoor play is important for children learning EAL, as most children are less inhibited in their language use outside. Plan interactions and activities where you can focus on vocabulary and understanding as well as following the interests of the children.

Pause for thought

  • - Do you have a common understanding about EAL development with partner agencies, particularly health, including speech and language therapists and health visitors?
  • - Does the setting work with partners in adult and family learning to signpost opportunities for parents to improve their English skills? This enables parents to access resources and participate more fully in the community as well as their child's learning journey


Key principle Children should be given space and time; patience and support, thoughtful provision, and acknowledgement of their skills in their home language will give them the confidence to achieve in English.

First-hand experience and daily routines

Ensure that children are given rich first-hand experiences so that they can develop language and build vocabulary in context (think how much more likely you are to remember the word 'pear' if you have smelled, handled, cut and eaten one, than if you have been shown a picture). A cooking activity or a visit to a local shop provides excellent opportunities to introduce or confirm language which children can recreate and rehearse in role play with a supportive adult. Adults who are able to do so should give further support by supplying relevant vocabulary in home languages.

Daily routines can be supportive, or they can be a missed opportunity for learning. For example, if you discuss the weather on a daily basis, are you sure children learning English know what you are doing? Are the weather pictures and symbols adequate? Do children know the words for types of weather in their home language?

Visual timetables that illustrate daily routines and sequences of everyday activities can be used very effectively to support language learning alongside concept development. Opportunities to take copies home to share with families can support language learning and extend home to setting links. Parents can extend the home language learning by supplying verbal or written captions to the pictures.

Photographs are particularly effective. The wall-mounted board highlights regular daily activities using photographs showing children at the nursery carrying out key routines such as snack time, hand washing and eating lunch. Each activity has a corresponding number which, when pressed by a child, describes the activity in English and other languages spoken in the community.

Games, music and stories

Games, music and stories can strengthen and value children's home language and help them to develop English. Language can be acquired and taught very effectively through playing games; the focus is on participation and enjoyment. Remember to ensure that children have grasped any rules, have had an opportunity to rehearse any responses necessary and are not asked to respond first in a turn-taking game so that they are able to watch, listen and learn from the responses of others.

Songs and rhymes help children tune into the rhythm and sounds of English. Simple songs, rhymes and refrains chanted in a rhythmic way are often the vehicle for children's first attempts in English. Sharing songs and rhymes in home languages reinforces similarities in patterns of languages and fosters links between home and setting.

The well-planned use of stories, traditional and new, contributes greatly to children's understanding and developing use of language (see Communications, Part 4, Nursery World, 14 April 2011). Clear illustrations and other visual support, artefacts and props should be used. Storysacks can be a wonderful resource to support links with home. Home-made books, particularly about familiar settings or objects, are a valuable resource and give hours of pleasure to young children who delight in the familiarity of the pictures, especially where they and other people they know are in them.

Telling, rather than reading, stories enables practitioners to more closely adapt them to individual needs. Persona Dolls that become characters in the setting with their own personal, family and cultural background can support learning on many levels and can be particularly effective for supporting cultural identity. There are many more ideas in Supporting Children Learning EAL: Guidance for practitioners in the EYFS, pages 16-20.

Children are natural linguists. With your support, children learning EAL will realise their potential and enrich their own and others' lives as they master English. As the Czech proverb says: 'You live a new life for every new language you speak. If you know only one language, you live only once.'

Helen Moylett is president of Early Education (www.early-education.org.uk) and an independent consultant. She can be contacted through www.earlylearningconsultancy.co.uk


Concern: Children speak their home language while they are in the setting.

Action: No need to be concerned. Supporting the development of a child's home language will enhance their ability to learn English. Time spent speaking their home language may also offer children a welcome respite from the pressure of speaking English.

Concern: Children learning English mix two languages in one sentence.

Action: No need to be concerned. This is part of the learning process and should decrease over time. Acknowledge all children's attempts to communicate. If possible, repeat what the child has said using all of the correct English words and grammar.

Concern: Children seem to go through a silent period before they feel confident to use English.

Action: No need to be concerned. This can last up to a couple of months depending on the child's personality, confidence and so on. Be aware that this is not a passive phase and the child probably understands much more than they can express. Continue to expect the child to respond, but try to avoid putting on too much pressure. Encourage non-verbal responses.

Concern: Children go through a period of not wanting to use their home language.

Action: No need to be concerned. This may be due to the influence of peers, the dominance of the majority culture or a change in the way that the community and family use their home language. Encourage the parents not to stop using their home language. In the setting, continue to acknowledge and celebrate the child's home language and culture.

Concern: It is difficult to differentiate between a child who is still learning English and one who has speech and language delay.

Action: Be concerned if:

  • - children are having difficulties understanding or using language in their home language as well as in English.
  • - children have been in your setting for more than three months and have not yet begun to use or understand English.
  • - children have a history of hearing difficulties or middle-ear infections.
  • - children have difficulty interacting non-verbally - for example, they do not initiate interaction or play and they do not point or make gestures to get their message across

If you feel that a child is having difficulties that are not related to learning EAL, speak to your manager and/or your local authority early years/early language consultant about what actions you should take. It may be that a referral to an outside agency is appropriate. Continue to provide a rich language environment for the child, and record your observations.



These are all things that effective practitioners do with all young children learning language and developing their social skills, but they may need extra thought when children are having to work much harder to process English meanings and keep up with what is happening in the setting

  • - Comfort babies and very young children at rest or sleep times with songs or stories recorded in their home language by their main carer.
  • - Use gestures and visual clues to support spoken language where possible.
  • - Talk about things in the 'here and now' - for example, things that you can see and hear.
  • - Use simple language and pronounce words clearly.
  • - Repeat words and phrases often.
  • - Give children time to respond.
  • - Emphasise key words and information.
  • - Small-group work can support language and social skills and build confidence. Bilingual children should be placed in the appropriate age group. If children with very little English are placed with younger children, they are less likely to make friendships and develop age-appropriate social skills. When working on small-group activities, ensure that children learning EAL are placed with children who have developed a good age-appropriate level of English. Children should not be withdrawn to learn English; this is neither necessary nor appropriate and can be counter-productive.


NurseryWorld Communication Masterclass

Join us at our Communication Masterclass on 6 July to hear a panel of leading experts provide updates on research, policy and practice.

Colwyn Trevarthen, Professor (Emeritus) of Child Psychology and Psychobiology at the University of Edinburgh, will provide insights into how to respond to young children's desire to communicate.

Early years consultant Helen Moylett, a member of the EYFS Review team, will outline the Review recommendations for communication and language and explain their implications for practice.

Finally, Alice Sharp, managing director of Experiential Play, will suggest stimulating resources and ways to create communication-rich environments, with a focus on children under three.

The masterclass will be held in London - venue to be confirmed - on 6 July, from 12.30. For more information and to book a place at £149 plus VAT, visit: www.nurseryworldcomms.com



Dukes, C and Smith, M (2007) Developing Pre-school Language and Communication (Sage). Chapter 8 provides brief clear guidance on strategies to support bilingual learners

Every Child A Talker: Guidance for early language lead practitioners, http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/earlyyears

Karmiloff, K and Karmiloff-Smith, A, 'Native tongues', Nursery World, 17 March 2011. A review of research into language development in monolingual and bilingual children.

Keep Your Language Alive (A health programme devised by NHS Southwark Speech & Language Therapy Team), www.southwarkpct.nhs.uk/a/398. This website for parents is very clear about the value of home language and includes simple advice, activities and a downloadable poster and is available in Arabic, Bengali, French, Spanish and Turkish.

Letters and Sounds Phase One teaching programme, http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/earlyyears. It offers practitioners a wealth of ideas for planned adult-led and child-initiated small-group activities which will encourage and support children learning EAL.

Persona doll training www.persona-doll-training.org/ukhome.html. The Persona Dolls and their stories support practitioners to help children develop empathy.

Rawstrone, A 'Talking timetable', Nursery World, 21 April 2011. An ECAT initiative in Burnley, where the visual timetable 'talks' in English and other community languages.

Supporting children learning English as an additional language Guidance for practitioners in the Early Years Foundation Stage can be downloaded from http://nationalstrategies.standards.dcsf.gov.uk/earlyyears

Talk to Your Baby (www.literacytrust.org.uk/talktoyourbaby) has advice on early communication and language and free downloadable resources, including 'Bilingualism: Frequently Asked Questions'.


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