Karen NemethMany Languages

We were fortunate to have Karen Nemeth present a webinar  about, Nurturing Bilingual Infants and Toddlers on August 31, 2016. Many of the participants had questions that we were unable to ask Karen.  She  was kind enough to answer them and they are posted below.  Here is a link to the recording:    Nurturing Bilingual Infants and Toddlers, by Karen Nemeth

Click here to:  Download the PowerPoint Slides


Q.1. Where to find resources in less common languages?

A.1. Please visit the catalog websites listed on the webinar resource handout. You can also type the language you need in the search box on Amazon.com or ask your local library to order items for you.



Q.2. Is growing up bilingual good for all children?

A.2. Yes – here’s an article with explanation. http://nyti.ms/1hdVB4b . We don’t have any research about best practices for language immersion programs for toddlers. When a child from a majority language home and community attends a program that is conducted in a new language, experts say the needs for support of the home language may be different – but we don’t yet have research to say how that is. We do know that learning a new language won’t last if it is not used in the child’s everyday life outside of the program.


Q.3. Questions about detecting language differences vs. language disorders?

A.3. This question cannot be answered in a brief blog post but it is important. I recommend the book Dual Language Development and Disorders as listed on the resource handout. I can tell you one thing: there has never been any research that has ever shown support for the idea of helping a child with speech/language or cognitive delay by using only one language. None. Ever. This professional “old wive’s tale” has got to stop. ASHA does not recommend going to one language. You can get some really strong wording from this position statement from the CEC’s Division for Early Childhood: Responsiveness to ALL Children, Families and Professionals (2010)


Q.4. Want an expression that is more accurate than “babies are like sponges”?

A.4. The truth is, babies are active constructors of knowledge, not passive sponges. They are more like data gatherers or even spies… but I’m not sure those would make good sayings in early childhood!  I recommend we just say “babies are listening and remembering nearly everything they hear in their environment!”. Incidental learning does happen and it is important, so we all need to be careful of the language used in the presence of infants and toddlers.


Q.5. How to provide professional development for staff who use American Sign Language or other languages?

A.5. Use as many videos as possible. There are several sources of video models on our resource handout. Some states have videos on their guidance websites. Head Start offers many videos on the ECLKC website. I am working hard to advocate for the production of more multilingual professional development materials. Remember, training for bilingual educators should include background on HOW to use the language assets brought by each staff member!


Q.6. Need more information about working with families who speak different languages or have different cultural backgrounds?

A.6. I recommend the book 50 Strategies for Communicating and Working with Diverse Families as listed on our resource handout. The key to building these relationships lies in spending more time together. Start by sharing pictures and videos of the children – a communication technique that every parent can relate to. Using translation apps and interpreters can pave the way, but these differences can only be really bridged by getting to know one another.


Q.7. Are rhyming songs necessary for supporting phonemic awareness and phonics?

A.7. Research shows that flashcards and repetitive songs have very little impact on the learning of phonemes. Phonemic awareness is best developed in the context of meaningful content connections and conversations. That’s why we start alphabet learning with the first letter sound of each child’s name. Research has also shown that learning these concepts under age 3 offers no advantages for learning to read later on. No Limits to Literacy for Preschool English Learners by Theresa Roberts is a good book for on this subject.

Familiar songs are nice, but should be chosen with a greater awareness of what they contribute to language development because children who are DLLs may not understand all of the words even with hand motions. There are so many songs for young children. Instead of trying to find ways to justify old favorites, consider adding some new songs and activities.


Q.8. Is it important to expose infants and toddlers to abstract words and different experiences?

A.8. Language develops through a series of connections. Introducing words or experiences that allow each child to make his or her own connection will be helpful. Introducing words just for the sake of it or experiences to “expose” children when there are no connections do not result in lasting learning. For example, a toddler who understands the word big can also understand the word enormous and the word grande. If you notice a child expresses an interest in seemingly abstract concepts like feelings, you might start by talking about “sad” and later add “disappointed” – but there’s no value in adding words like “ambitious” or “disingenuous” because they won’t have any connection, especially if you are using a new language for them. Don’t fall for the current fad of talking to infants the same way we talk to adults – there’s no science to support it.  Simplified, concrete language is exactly what the brain needs to build the foundation that makes it possible to process abstract words later on. Each child will be ready for some abstract words depending on their unique development, their language experience, and their interests.

Similarly, exposure to materials and experiences that help them make connections can be wonderful for infants and toddlers who speak any language. Exposure to ideas or experiences they can’t use or connect to will take up time that could be better spent on explaining and exploring things that they do experience. I often ask why infant/toddler programs use books/activities about outer space that the children can’t relate to, but they overlook interesting explorations about how the sink and toilet work! Often it’s about planning for the best use of time. When children have different language backgrounds, it is even more important to help them make connections with what they already know since they may not understand some of the talk that happens when they are in your program. Very few babies will encounter a snake. We wouldn’t say to cut that page out of every book – but do take a second look at all the books and activities you provide and see if maybe SOME of them could be replaced by more immediate connections. For these reasons, a “word of the week” or language learning flashcards offer very little value for infants and toddlers.


Q.9. Questions about using technology resources with bilingual infants and toddlers and their families?

A.9. Surveys show a majority of families have smart phones, across all languages and income levels. Texting and emailing can be great ways to communicate with families to support extended learning at home with support for different languages. I believe the benefits of technology outweigh the possible problems because we need every option to provide materials and experiences that young children and families can understand. Their unique needs make the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics practically irrelevant. I ask that programs and professionals find ways to allow and support the use of technology tools to support young bilingual children and build better relationships with their families.

Digital photography by camera, phone or tablet is ideal because there’s no film cost and pictures can be taken once but used multiple ways and shared between home and school.

Fran and I, along with several other influences in our field, have been trying to work with the authors of the ITERS and ECERS rating scales to update their parts related to the use of technology. Many programs just work with their states to overlook those items when calculating the scores.


Q.10. How and when should translations and interpreting be used with bilingual infants and toddlers?

A.10. It depends on each child’s needs, the resources available at the time, and the needs of the program and family. Young children benefit from explicit explanations and connections between words they know in their home language and words in the new language. Back to back translations, or reading both languages on each page of a bilingual storybook seem to cause more disruption to the child’s understanding. It’s better to focus on a story in one language and then do it again in the other language another time. Bilingual staff should be interacting directly in conversations with children, not merely whispering translations of what the English-speaking teacher is saying. Experts recommend that infants and toddlers should experience as much support for their home language as possible. A few hours a week is not enough. Infants and toddlers need some exposure every day but a lot depends on the language support he gets at home. Focus on the quality of the responsive relationships each child has with his or her caregivers and the individual, child-centered interactions that help them grow and flourish.