Cultural diversity: 4 easy steps to help second-language learners
How do you promote positive social-emotional and language development of your students who speak a language other than English at home? Of course best practices apply for all your students, but there are extra steps you can take to give the best chance of success to your second-language learners.
Here are four easy steps you can take right away to improve outcomes for everyone in your culturally and linguistically diverse classroom:
1. Talk, talk, talk! Whatever a child's native language, you can make an incredible, long-lasting difference simply by talking with him, from the time he is born. The friendly new guide Talk to Me, Baby! How You Can Support Young Children's Language Development by Betty Bardige builds on the revelations reported in the landmark Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children and The Social World of Children Learning to Talk with practical suggestions for ways to engage in conversation with young children from the start.
It doesn't matter if you and the family speak to the child in different languages. Contrary to what some believe, hearing two languages from birth does not create language confusion and is not likely to slow children's use of words. Parents may worry that they are putting their child at a disadvantage by using their home language when in fact, the language the child has been hearing since before his birth is familiar to him, and easier for him to use than a new one.
Parents who talk to their babies in the language that is most comfortable for them are likely to talk more and use richer language than parents who are trying to use a new languageor parents who limit their communications with a toddler because they fear that hearing two languages will confuse him.
Although learning two languages simultaneously or learning a second language in childhood may present some initial challenges, ultimately the child will gain. He will be able to draw on his knowledge of his preferred language as he adds new words in his other language. A large body of research suggests that learning a second langauge in childhood boosts both verbal and nonverbal IQ scores and helps children think flexibly.
See if you can determine what's myth and what's fact about children's language learning in this list of common misconceptions from Talk to Me, Baby!
2. Let the child be the teacher. Invite the child to share his or her language and culture. An effective early childhood program recognizes and honors the importance of the cognitive, linguistic, and emotional understanding that a child brings from home.
Get firsthand advice on how to let second-language learners be the experts on their language and culture in this engaging clip from One Child, Two Languages in Action: A Professional Development DVD, the companion to the bestselling text One Child, Two Languages: A Guide for Early Childhood Educators of Children Learning English as a Second Language, Second Edition.
3. Keep an eye out for "culture bumps" in interactions with families. A culture bump is defined by Isaura Barrera, co-author of Skilled Dialogue: Strategies for Responding to Cultural Diversity in Early Childhood and Using Skilled Dialogue to Transform Challenging Interactions, as cognitive and emotional dissonance experienced between persons when differing values, beliefs, and worldviews come into contact.
Culture bumps signal unfamiliar territory. A teacher may have a strong negative reaction, for example, to a parent who asks questions that seem too personal in her own culture (e.g., How many children do you have?). Or, a caregiver may disagree with a parent's insistence that a child be "seen but not heard." Examining such culture bumps can help inform effective interaction with families.
Directly or indirectly, cultures shape assumptions, biases, and stereotypes; it is important to be attuned to differences that may affect how you interact with families.
Use this sample Cultural Data Table from Skilled Dialogue to help you identify potential culture bumps and prepare you to interact effectively with families.
4. Provide training to teachers and caregivers so everyone is implementing culturally responsive and linguistically appropriate practices. Programs such as The New Voices ~ Nuevas Voces Guide to Cultural and Linguistic Diversity in Early Childhood introduce practitioners to concepts that are critical for adults in early childhood settings to understand in order meet the developmental and learning needs of all children.
Consider how the teacher in the following scenario might have responded differently had she received training about cultural differences:
Ms. Brown asked children in her classroom to describe an apple. Martita raised her hand and started telling the teacher, The other day, I was in the kitchen with my mom because she asked me to help her make a pie . . . Ms. Brown interrupted Martita and said, I asked what an apple is. Then another student raised his hand and Ms. Brown said, Okay, Jimmy, tell me what an apple is. Jimmy responded, An apple is a fruit, is round, is red on the outside, and is yellowish in the inside. Ms. Brown said, That is correct. Good job, Jimmy. Martita kept quiet for the rest of the school day.
Martita began by describing the social context in which she learned about the apple (i.e., helping her mom) before getting into the description, but her teacher thought she had not understood the question. The consequence of the teacher dismissing Martita's answer was a situation in which Martita perceived herself and was perceived by her peers as not being competent for the task.
Experiences such as the one illustrated can have long-lasting negative effects on young children's academic performance and socio-emotional development.
Rather than seeing Martita's response as incorrect or inappropriate, Ms. Brown could have recognized that Martita was responding from the cultural expectation that children learn through observing and paying close attention to what the adult is doing.
With training, Ms. Brown will still see the value in Jimmy's answer, which conforms to her own cultural view that values independent and logical-scientific ways of thinking, but also in Martita's view, which reflects a more collective viewpoint.
To help your staff be prepared to support the learning of all students in your classroom, take a look at the forthcoming New Voices ~ Nuevas Voces Guide as well as the New Voices ~ Nuevas Voces facilitator's manual on CD-ROM.