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It Takes a Multilingual Village

It takes a multilingual village to raise a multilingual child: Highlighting harmonious multilingual experience

(This is a summary of a webinar on Raising Multilinguals LIVE in March 2022. The title above is Dr. Linh Phung's title of the summary, not of the webinar).

Summary: Linh Phung

Presenter: He Sun

When considering early language development, from both theoretical and practical perspectives, we have put emphasis on the quality and quantity of language input. However, output is also critical for early HL development because When children use language, they can test their hypotheses about the target language.

  • When they use language, they invite more input.

  • Language use promotes language fluency (the ability to use language without too much struggle).

  • When children use language, it becomes part of their daily routine, which is a practical consideration.

He Sun’s recent study in the context of Singapore, where English is the societal language and three other “mother tongues” are recognized as official languages, asked parents to report the amount of HL use, when they started to use the HL with their children, and the places where they used it (supermarket, playground, etc.). One finding is that the number of places where they used the HL was rather limited. They relied on English in different settings. Another important finding was even when other well-established variables, such as input, socio-economic status, and some cognitive factors (e.g. verbal reasoning) were controlled, the number of places of language us still predicted all language domains tested (e.g. vocabulary and semantic verbal fluency). Her interpretation was that families need to “borrow efforts from not only conventional stakeholders, such as parents and schools, but also the wider community to promote early HL development. It takes a multilingual village to raise a multilingual child."

One piece of information from the webinar that caught my attention is when Dr. Sun points out the importance of early book exposure by citing some high-impact meta-analyses (I haven’t located the references). One study finds that early reading exposure explains 8% of later language development and reading comprehension. Another study finds that early book exposure explains 12% of the variance in oral language skills. As we already agree, early reading is important. The reasons include the fact that children’s books often contain 5x more difficult words than daily conversations. During book reading, parents and teachers can have conversations and ask questions. Through this process the knowledge from adults is passed to young children and is also a special bonding time. Although parents’ language proficiency affects the quantity and quality of language use to children, parents may also find resources (such as ebooks) for their kids if their HL proficiency is not high. Her research has found that well-designed ebooks can maintain children’s visual attention (measured through eye-tracking), which affects learning outcomes as measured by language production, productive vocabulary knowledge, and story comprehension.

Finally, she emphasizes the importance of harmonious multilingual experience in the sense that language input, language usage, and language proficiency are interdependent and language proficiency is related to social-emotional wellbeing of the children and the parents.

Full article: Language experience and bilingual children's heritage language learning, Feb 2022, Studies in Second Language Acquisition

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