Using the talents at hand: multilingualism within early childhood

We are a culturally and linguistically diverse sector. I have taught in classrooms where I have been the only person who speaks just one language. I had many joyous and at times humorous interactions with children. One little girl (a native Farsi speaker) whose English was progressing in phenomenal leaps and bounds, to the point where I would forget she only spoke English in my room, asked if she could go to the bathroom.

Without thinking I replied, ‘yes, of course you can go to the loo.’

She turned to me with a look that was a mixture of amusement and confusion and said, ‘Loo … what is loo!?’

In that moment, my own cultural and linguistic background was on show. I explained myself, she excused herself and I think we both had a quiet chuckle afterwards. The children in that group were very patient with me and it was my privilege to be taught so much by them. Hopefully, I managed to teach them a few things too.

These days, I work for Early Childhood Australia. As I sat in a studio with Dr Ruth Nichols, watching her record a new Learning Hub webinar on supporting bilingualism during early childhood, I reflected on my past experiences. Ruth talked about educators supporting children to speak languages other than English, or who are bilingual, it also got me thinking about the deep intricacies of language and culture within the early childhood space. Whether we are consciously aware of it or not we all (educators, children and babies) bring our own unique language experiences into our rooms each day and somehow make it work. Any service or classroom can truly be a microcosm of the world.

For some children and families, an early childhood education and care service may be the first environment in which English is the predominant language. For other children who speak another language at home, they may speak both English and their other language(s) interchangeably throughout the day, both to educators and their peers as their brains develop the words they need. You may notice children substituting words that they do not know in English for its translated equivalent in another language or vice versa. There will also be some children who are exposed to new languages for the first time within an early childhood service. This can be a rich time of learning for both children and educators.

Sitting in on the webinar really got me thinking not just about children who speak more than one language, but also the educators who do. With many services that have educators who speak two or more languages, the linguistic talents of the modern day educator present a great opportunity to encourage a richer and deeper learning experience in the early years. Developing activities around foreign language also encourages educators to share important parts of their history, culture and knowledge.

Whether this is learning words in Mandarin, phrases in French or exploring local Aboriginal languages and dialects, when we think about weaving language and culture into everyday interactions perhaps the focus should be on the children, families, community and the educators?

The long day care my own children attend has many bilingual educators. The educators share songs with the children and babies, sometimes the English language version followed by a version in one of the other languages they speak. It’s one of the many ways educators get to bring something of themselves into the room, and it’s something I’d like to see more of.  How do you make use of the diverse skills and language abilities of everyone in your early years setting?

The Learning Hub webinar Supporting bilingualism in early childhood is now available on the Learning Hub website.

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Erica Gardner

Erica Gardner has extensive experience consulting to early childhood education and care (ECEC), health and community services. This includes six years working as a Project Officer at the Centre for Community Child Health (CCCH) in Melbourne. Erica has also been a teacher in urban and rural settings. Since joining ECA as a Learning Hub project officer, Erica has developed content and scripts for modules and videos including a series for the Victoria Department of Education and Training on the practice principles of the Victorian Early Years Learning and Development Framework (VEYLDF). Erica has a Bachelor of Arts in Communication and Diplomas of Education (Primary and Secondary).

One thought on “Using the talents at hand: multilingualism within early childhood”

    Ryan Sullivan says:

    Dr Ruth Nichols’s webinar was excellent and helped me understand the theory of how bilingualism is attained and how we can support linguistically diverse children and families to learn English and maintain their home language.

    I was hoping for more about bringing other languages into the early childhood setting. The VEYLDF refers to this. In support of equity and diversity, early childhood professionals “recognise multilingualism as an asset and support children to maintain their first language, learn English as an additional language, and learn languages other than English.”

    I speak French and Spanish (at a roughly intermediate level) and would love to incorporate these into my work, though I’m lost as to how best to do this, or even how appropriate it would be, as some children would have just begun to learn English.

    My ideas so far are to sing children’s songs in those languages, teach basic phrases like ‘hello’, ‘how are you?’ and ‘thank you’, and maybe to introduce and read books in those languages. Also basic vocabulary such as colours.

    It would be amazing to incorporate these languages into the environment. My only concern is that I don’t want to step on any toes.

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