Multilingual Early Literacy

British Columbia is a province of diverse peoples and languages. As of 2016, 28.6% of residents’ mother tongues were neither English nor French. In Metro Vancouver, that number is even higher at 40%. Research shows that teaching children to read in their first language promotes greater reading achievement in English, as well as math, conflict resolution and executive function.

“Researchers have discovered that by encouraging multilingual students to use their home languages alongside the language of the classroom, they come to view themselves as talented and accomplished speakers of multiple languages who are more likely to engage academically, rather than feeling limited by their current abilities in the school language.” – Dr. Jim Cummins

Multilingualism should be recognized as a child’s asset. Some parents worry that speaking multiple languages might confuse a child or hold back their speech or comprehension. But research shows that there is no limit to how many languages a brain can learn.

“When adults validate and celebrate children’s diverse language abilities, they create more productive and engaging learning environments.” – Shannon Ward

There are many strategies to help encourage multilingualism. One tip is increasing exposure to native or fluent speakers of the desired language. Exposure must be continual in order to avoid the “use it or lose it” factor. A good place to start is singing songs and reading books to get children used to the sounds of a language. It’s important to remember that although frequent exposure and use is key to retaining languages, any exposure is better than none.

The IPALS program is one example of a family literacy program promoting both a child’s first language and English. It also successfully demonstrates the literacy gains achieved by encouraging both. For tips and activities for encouraging multilingualism in early and family literacy, check out the links below.


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