Supporting whānau who speak more than one language.

Families who speak 2 or more languages are giving their child a special gift. Being able to understand and express oneself in more than one language happens more easily when those languages are learned in the early years. This is especially the case when a baby has heard the sounds for other languages right from birth.

Whether children learn to speak one or many languages, the learning and development of those languages begins in the same place and that is in relationships. Relationships are key, as young children learn language by interacting with close family members. They learn language best from ‘live’ models rather than recordings. They need to hear the family’s languages spoken as part of their everyday life.

Being soothed and comforted in the languages of the family is an important component of language learning for young children. It not only provides the language model, it also supports their feelings of emotional security.

A second language can be learned simultaneously (2 languages at the same time) or sequentially (the second language is learned after the first has been mastered). Family and culture, individual dispositions and the type of exposure they have to the language will all influence how a child learns a second language.

When parents talk with their child in the language they speak most naturally, the child learns the rhythms, sounds and speech patterns for that language. When whānau use their language to talk and sing with their toddler, to read books and to share stories and rhymes, they are providing models of the language in developmentally appropriate ways for their child.

Language immersion

Toddlers are watching and listening and are very aware of what is going on around them. So, although parents are not consciously ‘teaching’ the language, their child is learning by hearing the language spoken in daily conversations between adults and other family members. Through this immersion in the language and hearing their stories, children are also learning about whānau life, their traditions and culture.

Language environments where there are plenty of opportunities to hear, talk, watch and play provide a rich language environment for a toddler. Language-based games in particular (such as naming, guessing and finding) in playful experiences are perfect to help a toddler’s understanding and use of the language grow.

Some whānau may worry that learning 2 languages simultaneously could confuse their child, restrict their fluency, or cause them to struggle to integrate into ECE, schools or communities. They may believe that it can be ‘too early’ or ‘too late’ to introduce another language to a child. These concerns are not supported by research. It’s possible to learn a second language at any age, but it’s far easier in the early years. Neuroscience proves this.

Some children raised with more than one language do take a little longer to start talking than those in a single language household, but the delay is temporary. There is a suggestion that bilingual children show certain advantages in social understanding. This is not surprising, as bilingual children have to navigate complex social worlds more than their monolingual peers.

A balanced approach and exposure to both or many languages is most likely to promote successful use of both languages and give children lots of opportunities to practise hearing and using the languages.

Whānau supporters can promote the acquisition of additional languages to whānau by showing an interest in the language, their greetings and customs. Remind parents how fortunate their children are and how wonderful it is for them to have access to the languages of their people. Encourage them to be proud of their mother tongue and teach their children to be proud too.

Other resources

Talking Matters(external link)

The benefits of learning te reo Māori | Te Kete Ipurangi(external link)

Learning two languages | ASHA(external link)

Video: New sing-a-long series, Waiata Mai, nurtures Māori language in children | Te Karere TVNZ (YouTube)(external link)

Te Aka Māori Dictionary(external link)

Pasifika languages | Te Kete Ipurangi

Serve and return interaction shapes brain circuitry | Centre on the Developing Child(external link)

V. Fierro-Cobas & E. Chan (2001): Language development in bilingual children: A primer for pediatricians. Contemporary Pediatrics 18(7): 79–98.