Love in Many Languages…Supporting Bilingual Families

Hi (English); Hola (Spanish); Aloha (Hawaiian) Ahnyong (Korean); Bonjour (French)…Today we will discuss some advantages of children learning more than one language during early childhood, and how the Growing Great Kids curriculum can help.

In November 2015 the United States Census Bureau released data tables showing that at least 350 different languages are spoken in U.S. homes ( 2015). This data informs us about the wide-ranging language diversity in our country, and indicates that bilingualism is on the rise. The U.S. Census Bureau reported that approximately 21% of the population (over the age of 5) is considered bilingual. English is spoken along with many other languages, including Native American, American Sign Language, Indo-European, Asian and Pacific Island, Uralic, Hungarian, Arabic and Hebrew, many languages of Africa, and indigenous languages of Central and South America. However, English-Spanish bilinguals represent about half of all bilinguals, making Spanish America’s second language ( 2015).

What does this mean in our work with families? Sometimes it means communication challenges between programs and families that have to be solved, but it also means big potential benefits for children growing up in these families. How does being bilingual benefit a child’s cognitive development and what roles does it play in school success? Is there something bilingual parents can do to support their children as they get ready for school?

Working with bilingual families means that we, as home visitors, need to be culturally competent in our service delivery. We need to recognize, appreciate, and demonstrate respect for the families’ culture and encourage healthy parent-child interactions and parenting skill development within the family’s culture, values, and beliefs. Language is one of the biggest components of culture. Promoting early language development in bilingual families may require some extra effort to increase parental awareness about the benefits of children being able to speak two languages before they go to school.

Research by Dr. Ellen Bialystok and her colleagues found that bilinguals, at all ages, demonstrate better brain executive control than monolinguals matched in age and other backgrounds (Bialystok et al., 2012).  Executive control includes skills like inhibition, switching attention, and working memory. These kind of skills support activities such as high-level thought, multi-tasking, and sustained attention.  In children, executive control is central to academic achievement and intellectual growth. Researchers concluded that bilingualism helps re-organize specific areas in the brain that create the basis for sustaining better cognitive performance throughout the lifespan (Bialystok et al., 2012).

Let’s discuss what you can do, as home visitors, can use the Growing Great Kids curriculum to help ensure that parents understand the benefits of bilingualism.  It might be helpful to look at what tools and resources GGK provides on this topic:

The 10-12 Months: Physical and Brain Development module includes a subsection called Brains Grow More Gray Matter with Two Languages. This conversation guide is designed to allow exploration regarding what parents have heard about this topic. It also introduces a handout that points out some of the benefits of being a bilingual child.  Like all information in the GGK curriculum, this handout is written in simple terms that present complex concepts, helping parents expand their thinking and ideas.

The 25-30 Months: Cues and Communication module includes the subsection Second Languages and School Success. This subsection is intended primarily for parents who are not yet teaching their children the language they will be expected to communicate with when they go to school. The goal is to encourage parents to start as early as possible teaching their children both their home language and the majority language (English) here in the United States. We know that not being fluent in English when a child enters the school system makes learning and socialization more difficult. This subsection incorporates a very informative handout on why two languages are better than one, exploring the advantages of toddlers and preschoolers becoming fluent in more than one language.  This subsection also includes The Bilingual Spider Activity which is designed to increase parents’ comfort level using the English language with their children to support language development while having fun and promoting positive parent-child interactions.

Another great and effective tool is the GGK Play-by-Play Daily Do – this tool supports Early Language Development. Parents are encouraged to practice the Play-by-Play Daily Do many times each day.  It consists of parents talking to their babies, describing what the baby is seeing, hearing, doing, or feeling. When parents use short, simple sentences and use their face, voice, and touch to communicate with their children, they are growing their child’s skills to be good listeners and good talkers.  When there is more than one language in the home, it is best for one parent/grandparent always to speak the same language to the child, and the other parent/grandparent to always communicate with the child using the second language.  Thus, bilingual families are encouraged to do the Play-by-Play Daily Do to support the child to become bilingual and have a better understanding of their family culture.

As we have discussed today, there seems to be an increasing awareness of the advantages of bilingualism in the United States. A growing number of families are fostering bilingualism either by making sure their native language and culture are kept alive or by encouraging children to acquire and use a second language.  Help the families you’re working with learn about the benefits of raising a bilingual child and support them in growing these skills using the GGK tools. Most importantly, don’t forget about the importance of having fun with these skills and sharing excitement about the ability to communicate in two languages!


Works Cited:

Bialystok, E., Craik, Fl., Luk, G. (2012). Bilingualism: Consequences for Mind and Brain. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Volume 16, Number 4 pp. 189-250.

The U.S. Census Bureau (2015). At Least 350 Languages Spoken in the U.S. Homes. Press Release Number: CB15-185. Retrieved from

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