The Importance of Multilingual Exposure at an Early Age

Written By : Sari Saliba
Sari head shot

We live culturally in a diverse country, where multilingual exposure comes naturally to young children. In the UAE children’s predominant mother tongue is not English, and since teaching in schools and nurseries takes place in English, most of the children are already learning a second language. For some English might even be a third language. 

Multilingual exposure in the early years doesn’t only mean teaching in English, it also means supporting the child’s mother tongue or bilingualism. According to Nishanti (2020) cognitive development and intellectual development are comparatively faster if a child is fluent in their mother tongue. Also, by learning the mother language well, it is easier for a child to learn a new language. Additionally, if a child reads in their mother tongue, they will have more substantial reading and writing skills in other languages. Languages are also the primary means of keeping our cultures alive since the best way to learn about a culture is to understand the language.  Living as an expat in a foreign country, it is important to stay connected to our traditions, culture, and roots. 

To support a child’s mother tongue at home, and in the nursery, it is essential to ensure the availability of mother tongue materials and exposure to the language. Literacy development starts early in life and if the parents and wider community are supporting literacy development, it results in the better development of a rich vocabulary. Children with access to books in their mother tongue at home are also more likely to develop fluency in reading in other languages. Teachers need to use engaging instructional strategies, where the child’s mother tongue is in a supporting role while learning the new, instructional language. Such strategies support the understanding of the language, and therefore children can be interactively engaged. 

Multilingualism is not only about the diversity of the community, or the importance of the mother tongue. It is also an overall cognitive development and a supporting of the child’s natural ability to absorb new skills. According to Michigan State University (2019) studies have repeatedly shown that foreign language learning increases critical thinking skills, creativity, and flexibility of mind. Between the ages of 0-3, the brains of young children are uniquely suited to learn a second or third language as the brain is in its most flexible stage. Bilingually exposed infants excelled in detecting a switch in language as early as 6 months old. Learning a second or third language does not negatively impact the child’s native language, on the contrary: the skills developed by learning a second or third language are immeasurable. Multilingual children can focus on one thing and change their response, easily indicating “cognitive flexibility.”  

Young children absorb sounds, structures, intonation patterns, and the rules of a second language very easily. They learn that an object stays the same even though the object has a different name in a different language (object permanence). Exposure to two or more languages over one language has many benefits. Multilingual experience improves the brain’s command center, thus giving it the ability to plan, solve problems and perform other mentally demanding tasks. These tasks include switching attention from one thing to another and holding information in mind, like remembering a sequence of directions when getting ready for school in the morning or, for adults, driving a car. (Michigan State University 2019.)

Teaching children additional languages at an early age is not as one might envision it, while remembering their language classes at school. Learning a language at early age is based on exposing the child to the language by using it as an instructional language while playing, reading books, singing songs, and creating literacy activities. The language exposure doesn’t mean that children are forced to absorb knowledge they are not yet ready for. Language exposure means that children will learn the second or third language naturally, the same way as they learn their mother tongue: listening to the language as often as possible and when trying to use the language, getting positive feedback, therefore creating positive reinforcement of learning. 

Rajathurai Nishanthi "Understanding of the Importance of Mother Tongue Learning" Published in International Journal of Trend in Scientific Research and Development (ijtsrd), ISSN: 2456- 6470, Volume-5 | Issue-1, December 2020, pp.77-80, URL:
Michigan state university “Advantages of a bilingual brain” 2019, URL:

Writer's Bio

Sari Saliba
Operations and Education Director - Blossom Nursery

Sari comes from a very rich early years background. She has a Bachelor’s degree in social services and Master’s degree in leadership and management. She is a registered nurse, a vocational teacher, Cache level qualified trainer, and a mother.