Supporting language acquisition in multilingual environments

Supporting language acquisition in multilingual environments


Dr. Bronagh Catibusic-Finnegan

National College of Ireland

Dublin 2017

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Catibusic-Finnegan, Bronagh (2017): Supporting multilingual children’s literacy development. MLM-make literacy meaningful:




Language acquisition is a vital part of children’s socialisation and early learning experience. Children learn to communicate with words and acquire new words through social interaction. They use words to express thoughts and learn new concepts. This article will consider how families can support their children’s language acquisition in multilingual environments. It will focus on vocabulary development across languages and look at ways in which educators can support multilingual children and their families.

Multilingual home environments

Children may encounter two or more languages in the home or they may enter an education system in which the language of instruction is different from their home language. They may develop different competencies in their languages over time and use them in different situations. If the home language of the family is a minority language in society, it may require particular support. Families and supportive communities play a central role in maintaining home languages.

Growing up with different languages can have many advantages. Research has shown the cognitive benefits of bilingualism.  Knowing more than one language can also help children in their learning of other languages and increase their flexibility in social interaction. There are also significant emotional benefits associated with maintaining home languages – children can use their home language to communicate with friends and family, for example, talking to grandparents who are speakers of that language.

Influences on language acquisition

Language acquisition in a multilingual environment depends on the linguistic input children receive in their different languages and on their opportunities to use these languages. Families provide the main support for children’s early vocabulary development. Parents can support their children by creating a rich interactive environment in the home. Talk, play, stories, songs and other language-focused activities provide children with vital opportunities to encounter and learn new words. It is important that parents engage with their children through the home language.

Children’s language acquisition may be affected by factors such as their family’s socio-economic status and/or migration background, and by their home learning environment . Studies show that children from low-income families tend to have less extensive vocabularies than children from higher-income families.  This can have long-term consequences for children’s educational outcomes, especially since vocabulary is a key aspect of literacy development. Families may therefore need support to help them create language-rich home learning environments.

In addition, children from migrant families often enter educational settings in which the language of instruction is a second language (L2). Educators should be aware that while these children may have a smaller L2 vocabulary than children who are native-speakers of the language of instruction, their home language vocabulary may be age-appropriate. Research has found that the combined vocabulary of a bilingual child may be larger than that of a monolingual child.  Recognizing that ‘vocabulary’ includes all the words children acquire across all their languages, educators should support children’s L2 acquisition and work together with families to promote home language development.


Home learning environment

Positive home learning environments can support children’s language acquisition. This means it is important to foster links between families and formal educational settings. Initiatives such as the Parent-Child Home Programme (PCHP) enable parents from low-income families, including migrant families, to create home learning environments which enhance their children’s vocabulary acquisition . Encouraging family involvement among linguistically and culturally diverse families must include supporting home languages.

Educators should also respond to the challenges faced by migrant families. Migrant parents may encounter language and cultural barriers as they try to negotiate an unfamiliar education system. They may lack the local 'network' that other parents are part of and may feel excluded from groups such as parents’ associations. Practical constraints such as work, childcare, and lack of extended family support may further impact on migrant parents’ involvement in school activities and events. Refugee and asylum-seeking families may also experience trauma as a result of forced migration and insecurity in their country of arrival. Schools and early educational settings must therefore take proactive steps to overcome these barriers, for example, by providing appropriate multilingual information and, where necessary, access to interpreters, and by enabling migrant parents to participate in school activities and associations.

Home languages as rights and resources

Home languages are an important part of children’s linguistic identity. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child expresses children’s right to use their home language . Home languages are also rich resources for learning . Children can use their home language and knowledge acquired through it to enhance their further learning. Practices such as ‘translanguaging’, which encourage the use of all languages present in the classroom, can thus support learning . Similar words or ‘cognates’ may exist across languages, enabling children to draw on their home language to acquire new words in their L2.  Promoting home language literacy can also support L2 literacy development. By using and creating dual language (home language and L2) texts, children can develop literacy skills in both their home language and the language of instruction.  These ‘plurilingual’ approaches increase children’s language awareness, so using many languages can be a positive learning experience for all.


Recognizing children’s home languages is an important aspect of intercultural education . Educators should encourage migrant parents to maintain their home languages and enable families to support their children’s vocabulary development through meaningful conversations, story-telling, reading, and play. Children’s linguistic and cultural identities should be affirmed by creating inclusive environments, where words in all languages become foundations for learning.


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