Fostering Language Development in Multilingual Children

Teksti | Alina Leminen

This article focuses on supporting language learning and home language maintenance in multilingual children. Research introduced in this paper supports ongoing projects and projects in preparation – all of which are part of forthcoming Integration and Language Learning Living Lab (i4L). The article covers the benefits of multilingualism, the facilitating effects of existing linguistic knowledge, and the crucial role of active language use. The paper also examines the significance of home environments, detailing key principles such as repetition, rich input, and the interplay between language acquisition at home and at school. Strategies employed by multilingual families, communication with peers, and language use are emphasized, providing a comprehensive guide for language maintenance. Additionally, insights into supporting language development in early school age and fostering an inclusive environment within classrooms are explored.

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Since the number of multilingual individuals is continuously rising in Finland, supporting language learning and maintenance already in childhood is crucial also for academic success of multilingual children. Laurea is currently coordinating a ‘Multisensory approach to language learning’ project, where we develop language learning methods, and soon launch a new Integration and Language Learning Living Lab (henceforth, i4L). In addition, Laurea is preparing an interdisciplinary project, in which we test and further develop supporting tools for language learning in preschool and other levels of education.

The majority of the world’s population is bilingual or multilingual (Marian & Shook 2012). Each multilingual child’s development is unique and depends on the languages they are learning, how often they hear the languages, and the context in which the languages are used (Festman, Poarch & Dewaele 2017). Benefits of multilingualism include preservation of a native language and culture, academic advantages, better career opportunities, as well as increased metalinguistic and metacognitive skills (e.g., Haukås, Storto & Tiurikova 2022; Festman 2021; Marian & Shook 2012).

When learning a new language, learners can profit from the already existing linguistic knowledge, i.e., vocabulary, grammatical structures, sound patterns of their other languages, and so on. Due to this, they may encounter a facilitating effect when handling a new language. (Festman 2021). Merely hearing the minority language, however, does not necessarily result in high proficiency in that language (Silvén & Rubinov 2010). Children must be given opportunities to actively use a language in interactions with other speakers of that language (Festman & al. 2017; Silvén & Rubinov 2010).

Supporting language learning in early childhood

In a home environment, children learn languages in a contextual setting through interaction and by engaging in various activities. Daily activities contribute to strengthening of memory and emotional connections with words. A home environment rich in diverse actions and objects facilitates language acquisition. A positive atmosphere also promotes language learning as children express themselves for communication rather than perfecting grammar (Festman & al. 2017; McCabe & al. 2013). Key principles of learning languages in a home environment include the importance of repetition, providing rich input, and contrasting language acquisition at home and at school. Multilingual families can use, for instance, following strategies (Festman & al. 2017; McCabe & al. 2013):

  1. Each parent communicates with the child in their native language, and a third language is introduced into the child’s environment. The success of this approach relies on ensuring that the child is consistently exposed to and actively engaged in the multilingual environment.
  2. Learning a third language at school can be challenging, but with engagement and interaction, children can catch up. Early participation in activities with peers who speak the third language can aid the learning process.
  3. If exposure to parents’ languages is unbalanced, the child can still learn both languages, albeit to a lesser extent, and this can also be beneficial for the child’s future.
  4. Enrolling the child in a language course or involving grandparents in the learning process can be helpful for language learning. Caregivers can demonstrate using different languages for various events or situations.

It is important to talk to children about the positive aspects of multilingualism and why it should be valued. If parents enjoy using multiple languages, children may find it easier to do the same. The amount and type of exposure significantly influence language proficiency (e.g., (Silvén & Rubinov 2010). That is, children will learn language comprehension only through substantial exposure to the languages and will learn to speak if they have enough opportunities to use it in meaningful situations. Continuous exposure, quality input, personal communication, making language learning interesting – all contribute to a supportive language learning environment (Festman & al. 2017). For example, designating specific days for each language can create a structured language environment, provided that all family members are proficient in each language. Parents can also choose a language during play, and for instance, board games which are not related to some specific language, can encourage playing that game multilingually. Encouraging children to repeat in the desired language when responding in another language helps reinforcing language use. Caregivers can allow the child to use the language they prefer while maintaining their language choice. Crucially, regular interaction with speakers of different languages also enriches cultural knowledge (Festman et al., 2017; McCabe et al., 2013).

Families can establish rules for using the different language as much as possible to increase its impact and mastery. In the early years of a child, stable and balanced use of diverse speech by parents (and other individuals caring for the child) can accelerate initial learning of words in both home languages (Silvén et al., 2014). Language use outside the home predicts reading comprehension in the language(s) spoken at home (so-called heritage languages) (Papastefanou, Marinis & Powell 2021). This demonstrates the importance of exposure to the heritage language(s) through complementary schools and other activities outside the home for their maintenance and development (Papastefanou et al., 2021).Festman and colleagues (2017) suggest that repeated reading of the same books, playing the same songs, and engaging in sequential interaction allow children to memorize and understand the meanings of words and the context of books. In addition to repetition, introducing new elements, for example, in the repertoire of reading, contributes to their development, supports interest and motivation. Novelty allows children to explore the surrounding world, express themselves using more specialized words, and improve language skills. For example, during games, parents can repeat words and sentences, encouraging children to repeat them. Introducing variations, such as changing a word in a sentence, can turn learning into a game. For example, saying ”I love cherries” can be modified by including other types of fruits or toys. Some key ways to strengthen, support, and maintain the home languages are communication with peers (for example, when children play and speak the minority language together), reading to the child in home languages (Silvén & al. 2014; Silvén & Rubinov 2010; Festman & al. 2017) and language use outside the home, such as complimentary schools (Papastefanou et al., 2021). That is, organizing playgroups or social events where the home (heritage) language is used can help children speak and support that language (or both home languages). Caregivers and other speakers of that language can make language learning enjoyable using games, songs, culinary activities, and various fun activities to engage children in language learning.

Supporting language learning in early school age

Research also provides insights into supporting language development in early school age. It is important to take advantage of the cognitive potentials of children at the early school stage by informative, stimulating, multilingual, and multi-themed learning materials and instruction methods (Festman, 2021). To support reading development in a child’s home languages in, for instance, complementary school, such as online Ukrainian school, it is important to support dialogical reading. In dialogical reading the child engages in a dialogue about read material, where a teacher asks the child questions on the content of the book, thus supporting the child’s engagement in the story (Festman 2023). To raise and maintain a child’s interest in reading, caregivers and/or teachers should support and encourage a child’s active participation in discussing the read material. This, in turn, might strengthen the child’s memory traces related to the read vocabulary. (Festman, 2021). Shared reading in classrooms has also shown positive effects on the vocabulary and grammar skills of young children (Grøver, Rydland, Gustafsson & Snow 2020). Active participation in discussing and engaging with learned material supports interactive learning and may therefore increase a child’s motivation in learning. Teachers (and caregivers) should invest time in addressing questions and answers a child has about the read material and support a greater role of children in conversations about reading material. In addition, both teachers and caregivers should show interest in a child’s success in maintaining and learning the home languages by providing supportive feedback, asking the child questions related to the material, leaving space for curiosity as well as offering reading and learning material that is interesting to the child. For instance, in school, children could choose not only the required books but also those that interest them during class (Festman 2023).

Furthermore, teachers can connect with the families to ask what educational practices they are already using at home. For example, the family might read a favorite book or tell a traditional tale. Once the educators know more information from home, they can include and build upon those practices, creating an inclusive environment within their classroom. Multilingual caregivers can help create and plan events and activities related to their languages and cultures, such as family literacy projects and cultural sharing opportunities. Overall, enabling more successful heritage (home) language maintenance requires a collaboration across families, communities, schools, and government (e.g., Boettcher 2022).

i4L in a nutshell

The aim of i4L is to utilize human- and community-centred approach in R&D work on the topics of language learning and integration. i4L aims for solutions and services that meet local needs and are accepted by the community, thereby ensuring the impact of R&D activity. In i4L R&D, we strive towards identifying and implementing measures that bring tangible and positive changes to people’s lives. i4L aims to create a sustainable collaboration structure based on knowledge exchange and long-term joint development.


Alina Leminen (PhD, Docent) is a cognitive scientist, who works in Laurea as Chief RDI officer. She has conducted research on, e.g., language learning, multilingualism, and the language development of immigrants. She is the Research Director in the Multisensory Approaches to Language Learning (MALL) project and in the forthcoming Integration and Language Learning Living Lab.



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