The Preschool Language Blender

By Karen Nemeth, Ed.M.

I recently visited a childcare center that had five preschool classrooms. There were children who spoke eight different languages and adults who spoke only three of those languages. The director had done plenty of reading of about the need to support home language development in young children. In her view, this was ‘easier read than done’. She, and her teachers, wanted to know how they could possibly support home language learning in these complicated circumstances. That’s a question I’ve been asked countless times. Here’s a piece of the answer.

The United States has a well-established system in place for supporting bilingual children in elementary and secondary schools. There are Bilingual Education specialists and English as a Second Language specialists, and world language teachers. Each one has their own clear role and requirements. This system falls short because virtually none of the college programs that train these specialists ever address the learning needs of children under the age of five. Preschool teachers need to find their own way as they are encountering more and more children from different language backgrounds in their classrooms.

Recent reports show that nearly 25% of our current five-and-under population comes from immigrant families. I hear from schools that have their first non-English speaker ever enrolled this year as well as programs that intentionally attract a majority of bilingual children. In most cases, the number of bilingual staff members does not quite match the language needs of the children. The best way to prepare teachers to be successful with diverse children is to help them bring together some of the best strategies from bilingual education, ESL, and world languages teachers.

The key is to focus on high quality, developmentally appropriate early childhood practices and enhance them with these additional strategies. Turns out this is not a whole new curriculum to add to the day – it’s a natural adaptation of what good preschool teachers know already. When the teacher knows some of the child’s home language, she should use it to engage in nurturing, engaging conversations with the child (even if she feels a bit awkward) just as we would see in an older bilingual education class. When the teacher does not know the child’s language, she can support his learning by using enhanced gestures, repetition, props, and pictures to build understanding as we’d see in a typical ESL program. Using a world languages approach helps all the children in the class learn each others’ languages so they can get along and learn from each other.

I discussed this with my colleague, Ana Lomba ( . We marveled at our different our professional paths. She focuses on teaching foreign language to young English-speaking children while I train early childhood teachers to work with English language learners. We’ve had different education and training, belong to different professional organizations, and yet our message is almost always the same! Don’t worry about separations and distinctions. Just throw it all into the educational blender! Use whatever strategy seems best with each individual child using the resources you have in the context of your curriculum. Trust your best early childhood instincts and don’t be afraid to reach out and collaborate!

For more early childhood language learning strategies, visit

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