Language and learning in early learning settings

English is not the first language of many families in Australia, with 21% of Australians speaking a language other than English at home (ABS, 2017). Today, Australia is one of the top 10 countries in the world where the most languages are spoken (Eberhard et al., 2022). This will probably not surprise early childhood educators, who are familiar with the cultural and linguistic diversity of children attending early childhood education and care (ECEC) settings.  

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Early childhood educators and teachers play a significant role in sharing culture and language within their learning spaces. Through inclusive practice, play-based learning and partnerships with families they can create environments where children’s diverse languages and cultures can be shared and celebrated.  

Encouraging children’s linguistic diversity  

The languages children speak have important implications for them and their sense of ‘belonging, being and becoming’ (DEEWR, 2009). More and more research is suggesting that we need to change the way we think about language learning: languages are not stored in silos, with each silo for a different language. Instead, we need to think of children as having a language toolkit containing language capabilities that they can draw from at any given time.  

Many educators—especially those who speak more than one language—are well equipped to encourage children’s linguistic diversity (Slaughter et al., 2020). When educators encourage children’s ability to draw on more than one language, they take a strength-based approach to linguistic diversity. This supports the language learning of children who are using English as an additional language as well as other children around them. English language learners draw on all their language knowledge when they are learning English and, as a result, interest in supporting first language maintenance as well as English language learning is growing.  

The idea of encouraging the use of more than one language is not new. It is an important part of the profession’s guiding documents and frameworks. For example, the Early Years Learning Framework asks educators to encourage children’s respectful responses to diversity by exposing them to different languages and dialects (DEEWR, 2010). To strengthen children’s dynamic and complex language capabilities, educators need to intentionally encourage children to use their full language toolbox for learning. 

Influences on language’s position in ECEC settings 

Recent research exploring the influences on language’s positioning in ECEC programs (Cohrssen et al., 2021) suggests that there are three key factor: language ‘ideology’, educator belief systems and early childhood pedagogy. 

Language ideology surrounds the ways in which beliefs and attitudes shape and are shaped by our relationships with our own languages, the languages of other people and socio-contextual factors. An example of language ideologies coming into play is the reality that English proficiency is essential for success in Australia—both in education and in the employment sector. 

Educator belief systems also have a significant impact on children’s experience of linguistic diversity. If educators actively believe in promoting language learning in their setting Any unconscious behaviours, assumptions or biases may negatively impact language learning. This is why critical reflection is such an important part of educators’ work. It is important to examine if perhaps unconscious behaviours, assumptions or biases may in any way diminishing a child’s inclusion in our increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse society. Alongside critical self-reflection, it may be helpful for educators to engage in reflective exercises as a team and service surrounding inclusive language practices. This can be achieved through questions such as: 

  • Is linguistic diversity and inclusivity discussed at staff meetings? 
  • Have there been opportunities for cultural awareness training? 
  • What professional development could be done to support further knowledge and understanding and boost critical self-reflection in regards to language-related teaching practice?  

Early childhood pedagogy is another major influence on the positioning of language in ECEC settings, particularly ‘plurilingual pedagogies’. This involves educators acknowledging that children may be drawing on more than one language for learning and actively encouraging them to do this. Children’s identity, wellbeing, learning and communication are enhanced when educators demonstrate to both children and their families that all languages are valued. The majority of ECEC services across the country are well positioned to do so, with 98% meeting or exceeding NQS Standards 6.1 and 6.2 (ACECQA, 2020). This achievement demonstrates that educators have established supportive and collaborative relationships with families—a critical first step to supporting the development of English and other languages in their services.  

Language is a significant part of what makes up children’s identity and sense of belonging. Educators play a crucial role in fostering inclusion by being aware of language ideology, belief systems related to language development and language-related teaching practice. Children who speak English as a second language have the right to be included in their early learning service. It is, therefore, important that educators take the time to recognise each child’s first language and find ways to ensure they have the opportunities to share and express themselves through an inclusive environment. In fact, at a pre-service level, teachers should be equipped to recognise, assess and promote children’s language and communication skills, as these skills develop along learning trajectories, regardless of how many (or which) languages children use.    

References 

  • ACECQA 2020
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). (2017, June 27). Census reveals a fast changing, culturally diverse nation [Press release]. www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/lookup/media%20release3 
  • Cohrssen, C., Slaughter, Y., & Nicolas, E. (2021). Leveraging languages for learning: Incorporating plurilingual pedagogies in early childhood education and care. TESOL in Context, 30(1), 11–31. https://doi.org/10.21153/tesol2021vol30no1art1572 
  • Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR). (2009). Belonging, being and becoming: The early years learning framework for Australia. Commonwealth of Australia. 
  • Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations (DEEWR) (2010). Belonging, being and becoming: Educators guide to the early years learning framework for Australia. Commonwealth of Australia. 
  • Eberhard, D. M., Simons, G. F., & Fennig, C. D. (Eds.). (2022). Ethnologue: Languages of the world (25th ed.). www.ethnologue.com  
  • Slaughter, Y., & Cross, R. (2021). Challenging the monolingual mindset: Understanding plurilingual pedagogies in English as an Additional Language (EAL) classrooms. Language Teaching Research, 25(1), 1–20. https://  

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Caroline Cohrssen

Caroline Cohrssen is a Professor in Early Childhood Education at The University of New England in Armidale, NSW. As she is interested in children’s learning from birth to five years, her research encompasses the home learning environment as well as early childhood education and care settings. The implications for pre-service teacher education and in-service professional learning are also important to her. She has recently returned home to Australia after spending three years living and working in Hong Kong SAR.

2 thoughts on “Language and learning in early learning settings”

    Maria Jacinta mac says:

    I work in partnership with parents to write some key words so, I can easily communicate with their child. some communications are supported with visuals and hands on objects

    Somayeh says:

    Thanks Caroline for promoting and supporting cultural diversity. This is an important area for our educators to know!

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