Technology for Young Dual Language Learners

Dual language learners are the fastest growing segment of the population in the United States, currently representing about 25 percent of children under age 6. A dual language learner (DLL) is any young child who is growing up with two or more languages, regardless of his or her proficiency.

Research reviewed by the Center for Early Childhood Education Research shows that success in English and literacy in elementary school and beyond depends on providing some support for children’s home language during early childhood.  Use of the home language helps DLLs build on the concepts they have already learned in that language.  Hearing familiar words is very effective in bridging the child’s developing understanding of content in English.

As the diversity of languages grows, and as English-speaking families increasingly want their children to be bilingual in a global economy, teachers face a growing burden to find culturally and linguistically appropriate resources and activities to support dual languages. Technology can open up a world of resources for early childhood programs and families.

But not all technology is created equal. The best tools for dual language learners support the three Cs:Nemeth2-300x223

  • Communication
  • Conversation
  • Connected concepts in context

Well, okay, that’s really five Cs and you will find examples for each of these functions in the examples below.

Children and adults need to use a language to truly learn it.  Just seeing words on a screen or displayed elsewhere will result in very little, if any, language learning.  But, as we often say, it’s not the tools – it’s how you use them that makes or breaks the success of a technology strategy for learning.

Here are a few strategies to try.

Translation apps:  Google Translate, iTranslate, 20 Welcome Words, and many others are available on all platforms.  Many are free. Look for spoken translations.  These can be great at overcoming initial language barriers and building communication with families and children.

They are not always reliable, however.  Find a friend who speaks the language to proofread.  Translators only work well when they are ready at your fingertips.  Many schools have banned smart phones during school hours.  In diverse programs, these rules need to be reconsidered.

Digital storybooks:  Look for bilingual stories and nonfiction books in ebook or app formats that offer voiced narration.  The best strategy is to use them yourself to learn new languages.

Given that young children learn language best through human interaction, it is not advisable to just stock up on recorded stories and send children off to a corner with headphones.  They need the teacher or parent to learn the words so he or she can read with them and use the new language in conversation.

You might find stories in other languages, but always have someone read that language to be sure it is appropriate and of sufficient quality to use with your children.

Flashcard apps:  Did I recommend flashcards?? Early childhood experts agree that flashcards are not developmentally appropriate for young children.  Yet there are hundreds of mobile apps, computer games, and interactive whiteboard resources for learning languages that look just like boring, old-fashioned flashcards.

Activities that have children memorize random words with no context are useless tools for early learning.  That is, unless you are able to think outside the flashcard box.

Choose a flashcard app that can be used as a communication tool with images of food, drinks, classroom materials or self-care items that the child can use to show you the picture of what she needs.  Use the words to connect with the child’s activities and interests. Use them as story or conversation starters.  In other words, keep the focus on communication, not on superficial word learning.Nemeth1-300x215

Bypass low-value words like colors and shapes in favor of communication-rich words about clothing, food, nature, transportation, music and games.  Create games using language learning apps,  and share the creative process with the children.

Language-free zone:  Sometimes the best language supports are those that have nothing to do with language.  Open-ended drawing programs offer young children opportunities to express themselves beyond the limits of vocabulary.

YouTube videos provide countless opportunities to help a child understand a concept that is hard to convey in words.  Google Hangout or Skype can offer chances for interacting with language buddies or relatives in home countries.  Games like those produced by Toca Boca allow children to work together to create and to build concepts in useful contexts and practice skills across languages.

Intentional language learning resources:  The growing demand for multilingual resources for young children is being met by a growing number of language development resources.  However, not all are high quality. Paying for quality may be even more important in this market.

The resources developed by the Hispanic Information Technology Network’s Early Learning Collaborative are designed to help families build their child’s bilingual skills at home. My own Bilingual Smart project with coauthor Ana Lomba is a different approach with the same goal. Respected developers, Peapod Labs, created the PeaPod Farm app with video content in English and Spanish to enhance concept learning.

A national survey of early childhood educators in 2012 found that many teachers do not use technology to support dual language learners, and those that do are more likely to choose options that are not designed expressly for teaching these learners. Educators and families need more information and resources so they can provide high-quality learning activities in native and new languages.  I am working on a rubric for evaluating apps for dual language learners and welcome your comments and questions. The more we do to support the development of all languages, the more we can build the strength and capacity of our education system and the success of our children.

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