Effective Strategies to Support Children's Language Acquisition

Ruth Rouvier’s extensive expertise in documentation, maintenance, and revitalization of endangered languages informs her work connecting children's linguistic and cultural heritage to their early learning. Recently, Ruth worked with tribal communities and EDC's National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness team to develop tools and resources to support American Indian and Alaskan Native Head Start centers in planning and implementing language revitalization programs. On October 13 and 14, she will lead a National Science Foundation-funded workshop that will examine the impact of endangered language documentation on young children (read a related post about this workshop). In this post, Ruth shares three strategies to support young children’s language acquisition.

The early childhood years are a vital, ripe, and productive time for language learning. Young children’s brains are keen, quick to absorb, and ready to roll. Yet in our country, we start language learning quite late and many teachers don’t realize that children are capable of—and actually thrive from—learning languages when they are very young.

In my work for the National Center on Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness, I found that many teachers need a better understanding of how key the early childhood years are for children’s language learning and how best to support this learning. For example, in one program I found that Early Head Start teachers who happened to speak children’s Native language (also called “Mother Tongue”) hesitated to do so. They were perfectly situated to use their language all the time with the babies, but they said: “We only use single words with the little ones because we don’t want to confuse them.” Their intentions were good, but it is actually not possible to confuse a one-year-old.  A one-year-old’s full-time job is just spending time figuring things out! They enjoy it and, frankly, they excel at it.

That is one reason why I’ve focused my upcoming National Science Foundation-supported event, “Documentation and Child Learners: A Workshop to Examine the Broader Impacts of Endangered Language Documentation,” on children from birth to age five and will be working to identify strategies to engage and support all of those who care for and work with children in this age group.  Another reason is that many language revitalization programs start with older children, often teenagers. Although there are quite a few language revitalization efforts with younger children, I have found that many early childhood programs use what I would call “hand-me-down” materials and not materials designed for young children. For example, these materials might be formal lessons left over from earlier language revitalization efforts in the community targeted for older children and are quite inappropriate for children in Early Head Start and Head Start programs.

Formal language lessons don’t work well with infants and preschoolers. Instead, it’s best to just use the language with them. Here are three simple “do’s” to effectively support all young children’s acquisition of language: 

  1. Use the language communicatively with children. For young children, the social aspect of interaction in language learning is really important. Instead of only trying to teach children words or playing recordings for them, engage children in using language in a communicative, social way. For example, to teach children color terms, instead of memorizing individual color words you can talk about different objects in the classroom or home: “This cup is blue. Is the jacket blue?” Child acquisition language research says that children learn best this way.
  2. Use the language often and weave it into everyday activities. Use the language with the child doing all of the normal, everyday things you would do anyway. Giving children a wide variety of opportunities to use the language is like helping them build a muscle; if they use the language regularly, their skills will grow stronger and they will gain confidence in using the language.
  3. Give children the opportunity to watch and listen to you speaking the language with others. Watching and listening to you talk to other adults and children in the language gives children an amazing wealth of information. They learn that the language is valued and important, and that strengthens the status of the language for them. They also start to understand the key parts of communicating with the language including gestures, eye contact, facial expressions, the things people talk about, the subtle ways people respond to each other, and how people take turns. It’s not enough to just know words and sentences. Children need to know how, why, and when to say certain things and how to react.

Interested in learning more? I encourage you to explore the resources that EDC and Bank Street developed during our work on the National Center for Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness, including EDC’s Planned Language Approach, the Dual Language Learner Toolkit, and the Making It Work! Resource.


Monday, October 3, 2016 - 12:15pm