by Lourdes Diaz Soto, PhD  

At a recent workshop, I asked all of the early childhood educators in the audience whose grandmothers spoke a language other than English to raise their hands. A large majority did. Then I asked those people if their parents spoke the grandparents' language. Considerably fewer-although still a large number-did. Finally, I asked all those who now speak their grandmother's language to raise their hands. Only a few hands went up.

Teachers whose early childhood memories include hearing more than one language spoken at family gatherings have expressed sadness that neither they nor their children are able to speak the language of their grandparents. They say they miss the sights, sounds, and tastes of family traditions. There is strong evidence that maintaining family culture has a strong effect on children's social and emotional development. In addition, children with a strong base in the language and culture of their families receive the "intergenerational wisdom" that loving families pass down to them through song, story, music, art, drama, dance, and so on.

The wisdom passed down from generation to generation has a central place in many cultures where the extended family has traditionally played a major role in child-rearing. In my own family-as in many Latino families-my grandmother was the primary figure in my life. She was my reference point-the person I was most eager to make proud. Speaking my native language with her made me feel especially close to my heritage.

When language, along with cultural wisdom and pride, are no longer passed down to the next generation, children-and our society as a whole-lose something. The richly diverse cultural and familial traditions of our own country, and the intergenerational wisdom that is imbedded in them, are all being lost. Yet these could serve us well in our struggle with some of the complex social issues that face us. When language and culture are preserved, and children learn pride in who they are and respect for one another, the collaborative wisdom of our nation's diverse cultures will help us solve problems together for generations to come.

As teachers of our youngest children, there are two basic areas we need to explore in order to help preserve the traditions of all the children in our care. First, we need to examine our own personal attitudes about languages and cultures, since these attitudes will be mirrored in our classrooms. Second, we need to examine our classroom practices to make sure they support the best interests of children from either linguistically diverse or monolingual families.

To evaluate your program's relationship to diversity and language, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I respectful and accepting of children's culturally and linguistically diverse families?
  • Do my literature and classroom environment reflect the languages and cultures of the children?
  • Does my program integrate the wisdom and knowledge of these diverse groups, particularly their art, music, games, and stories, as well as their traditions of relating to the natural world?
  • Do I invite guests to the classroom or take trips that are culturally and linguistically relevant to the children?
  • Do I provide lots of experiential and hands-on learning activities?
  • Do I give children lots of language opportunities that include social and informal interactions?
  • Do I encourage families to maintain their native languages and cultures?
  • Do I give second-language learners the gift of time?
  • Do I provide lots of opportunities for children to interact with families and individuals who are like themselves?

Lourdes Diaz Soto, PhD, is an associate professor in the College of Education at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.