Early exposure

It’s an unexpected benefit of daycare—learning a second language

The earlier you can expose a child to a second language, the better, says a speech language pathologist with the preschool speech language program at First Words of Ottawa and Renfrew County. Young children are very malleable and do have the ability to pick up and learn faster when they are exposed to a new language, says Roxane Belanger. “Exposing a child to a second language different from the one spoken at home can be an advantage, especially if you start early or at the daycare.”

Roxane Belanger. Photo Courtesy Roxane Belanger

“Daycares use many strategies or cues to help a child learn a language,” says Belanger. “Other cues like visuals and gestures, like pointing or showing help children understand the language. Repetition of key words so a child can focus on a few important words helps them build comprehension and over time, can help them to start to use the words by themselves and eventually in sentences.”

Exposure to the new language must be consistent and repeated. Belanger points out that when a child is learning a new language, there might be a silent period in that new environment, such as the daycare, while they are trying to understand and make sense of the sounds, words, and messages in that second language. However, children should continue to thrive and use their first language at home or with people that speak their first language. “Children will eventually start to use the new language they are being exposed to,” says Belanger. “And sure, they will make grammatical errors. That’s to be expected. They are using their first language rules and applying it to the second language. But they will get it, and, in the end, it adds to their mental flexibility and capacity.”

While it is important to keep up the first language at home—Belanger says that is linked to their family members and their culture—“there are so many benefits to being bilingual,” she says. “It provides more awareness in reading and writing and understanding sound patterns. It helps with memory skills too and uses different pathways in the brain. So being exposed to a second language different from the one being spoken at home learned in daycare can be an enormous advantage over time.”    

Rose Ann Cotter understands parents’ concerns when a child is faced with another language in a daycare. “We know that parents can be anxious when they are placing their child in a daycare where the language at home is neither English nor French,” says Cotter, program coordinator, registered early childhood educator with Andrew Fleck Children’s Services at the Capital Child Care Centre location. “But we know how beneficial learning another language can be and once the child is settled in and doing well, those concerns are alleviated for the parents.” Cotter says that they do follow how well the child is doing, and if there are any concerns, they talk to the parents.

Rose Ann Cotter. Photo Courtesy Rose Ann Cotter

“If we see a child struggling, our resource consultants talk to the parents and establish some key words in the home language to help them understand,” says Cotter. “We make it as comfortable for the child as possible and make them feel comfortable going at their own pace. Our team works with the whole family, not just the child.” Cotter says the staff acts as role models for the children to set an example of not just language, but attitudes as well. “The staff may look overly dramatic sometimes, but using gestures, visuals and facial expressions and speaking slowly really helps in learning a language,” says Cotter. “And it really helps all the children to learn.” Cotter says they also recommend that parents continue using the language spoken at home—it keeps up family and cultural connections.

As for choosing the right daycare for your child, Cotter says it’s about developing trust with the family. “We want the family to feel comfortable leaving their child—especially when a new language is involved,” she says. “They have to be assured that we are current on learning issues and have the knowledge of childhood development stages.” Cotter says that every Andrew Fleck Centre is different, so there is quite a choice for parents in finding the best fit for their child. “We’re all about helping children thrive,” says Cotter. “And if we can help a child thrive in a new language, so much the better.”


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