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Ngā huarahi reorua, reohuhua

Understanding bilingual and multilingual language pathways

“Increasingly, children are likely to be learning in and through more than one language. Besides English, te reo Māori, and New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), some 200 different languages are in use in New Zealand, with Samoan, Hindi, Northern Chinese, French, and Yue (Cantonese) being the most common. Children more readily become bi- or multilingual and bi- or multiliterate when language learning in the education setting builds on their home languages."

Te Whāriki, page 12

Benefits of bilingual and multilingual learning

"Kaiako in early learning have a vital part to play by educating families about the advantages of bilingualism, by helping children retain their bilingual identities and their family ties, and by preparing them to live in a diverse society.” 1

 Kaiako and two tamariki talk together about flowers.

A diverse language environment promotes an understanding of concepts and values associated with identity, language, and culture.

Becoming proficient in two or more languages is a proven advantage in any language learning. Research shows that fostering bilingualism (and multilingualism) supports children to develop strengths in cognitive and social learning.

Being bilingual enables children to:

  • communicate with people in their families, communities, and learning environments
  • relate to others – participate in cultural activities and connect with others in the community
  • learn new words and learn additional languages
  • develop bi-literacy or multi-literacy skills and have access to additional literatures, traditions, and ideas to enrich their later learning
  • access and apply cultural knowledge that is embedded in language2
  • demonstrate flexible thinking and be able to use information in new ways
  • come up with new solutions to problems.3, 4 

Understanding bilingual language learning pathways

Fostering children’s oral language in Aotearoa involves bilingual and multilingual language learning pathways. Kaiako have an important role in integrating te reo Māori in everyday activities. Promoting the learning and use of home languages in the early learning setting affirms children’s culture and identity.

Being aware of each child’s language learning pathway helps kaiako make thoughtful observations, formative assessments, and consider how to support learning and development in ways that acknowledge their linguistic and cultural strengths.

There are two pathways for children becoming bilingual:

  • developing two (or more) languages from birth
  • second (or subsequent) language learning.

Bilingual from birth

Language steps

  1. Children spend time immersed in two or more languages from infancy.
  2. Children mix their use of languages. They learn sounds, vocabulary, and grammar across their languages.
  3. Children know the distinct features of their languages.
  4. They are able to switch between languages according to their conversational partner.
  5. Children develop a preferred language over time.

Second (and subsequent) language learning after age three

Language steps

  1. Children become proficient in their home language. They are introduced to a second language after age three.
  2. Children mainly observe and listen in environments where the second language is spoken.
  3. Children use patterns of the new language: short sentences that are modelled by fluent speakers.
  4. Children become creative in the new language, developing their own correct sentences.
  5. Children become proficient and hold conversations in their second (or subsequent) language.


Children can learn more than one language system at the same rate as monolingual learning. Expect children to combine elements of languages in one sentence as a typical feature of bilingual/multilingual interactions.

Receptive and expressive language

Expect in all language learning that children’s receptive language (knowledge and understanding of language) is a step ahead of their expressive language (what they can express).

Nola Harvey shares her thoughts on bilingual and multilingual language learners

  • Transcript

    Transcript Transcript

    Nola Harvey: The bilingual, multilingual language learners, particularly in the early years, will follow the same general pathways as a child who's monolingual.

    The whole process of language learning in the early years is absolutely dynamic. And so it moves at the pace of the engagement, if you like, that the child has with significant others, their whānau, and in a range of contexts.

    When children are processing, it's such a lot of information, if you like, from their environment, they may appear to be slow developers or slowly developing. But in fact, the processing that's going on is quite significant. Every sense is used. Every child is doing this actually. Every sense is used – smell, touch, hearing, sound – hopefully, where there aren't impairments, that bit by bit a child will start to copy and make utterances and approximations of the sounds and the gestures that they see in and around them.

    That bilingual and multilingual learner then they're in perhaps three different cultural contexts each day – could be at home, then they're in a centre, then they're with Grandma, whatever it is. And so feeling comfortable – feeling a sense of belonging, “Oh I can take some risks here. I can be myself here.” It’s quite important, and how to build that safe environment. An environment where a child knows from early on that their language and their culture is accepted and recognised and used. And they will feel comfortable with it that they can use their language for learning. So some of the ways you're already guided to do that in the text here will tell you that if you're making that environment resonate with some of the cultural things, artifacts, and things that come out of that child's environment that they might see, “Oh, yes, I've got this at home. I recognise that.”

    (Nola holds up the intentional teaching practice cards)

    There are some really useful intentional teaching conversation reminders here in the reflective questions in these little cards. And this is just simple things that we can do every day with our little cards here that are part of our kit – Intentional teaching practices. I just love the reflective question here. I'd be asking myself this, I think, when I go into an early childhood setting. "What voices are we hearing from our collection of storybooks? What's one thing we could do to hear more stories from the families and the communities that are represented here?" You know, just sometimes that one reflective question will set you off on a pathway.