Due to increased global mobility and the unprecedented forces of globalisation, the world has become increasingly diverse. We are all witnesses to social, cultural, ethnic, and linguistic diversity in schools and early childhood services. Research on multilingualism and multiculturalism in primary and secondary school settings is well documented (e.g. Baker & Wright, 2021; Esau, 2014; Krajewski, 2011; Rowan et al., 2017). Nonetheless, there is scant research in early childhood education and care (ECEC) that informs early childhood educators’ pedagogical practice to respond to the cultural and linguistically diverse needs of children.
While I personally acknowledge the arduous and meaningful—yet undervalued—work that early childhood educators do to embrace diversity, more collective and collaborative endeavours between researchers, educators and families need to be pursued to ensure that the needs of children from language backgrounds other than English are fulfilled. What practices are promoted and sustained in ECEC services to support children from diverse language backgrounds? Are we all adequately equipped with the knowledge, skills and dispositions to address the language needs of bi/multilingual children? In what ways are bi/multilingual families supported to understand their children’s bi/multilingual journeys?
The broad focus of this article is linguistic diversity and multilingualism. Specifically, the article reports on some preliminary findings of an 18-month study that surveyed 84 families of language background other than English on their views, perceptions and practices that support the multilingual trajectories of their children. Parents across New South Wales and Victoria were surveyed and interviewed on the home language and literacy practices that support their children’s language repertoires.
The upside, the downside, and the way forward
Parents of children aged between three and five were asked about how they support children’s maintenance of their home/heritage language. Over 90% (N=76) of parents indicated that only their home/heritage language is used in the home environment. Parents were also asked about the home-based practices that support their children’s development of English. Over 95% of parents (N=80) reported that ‘no intentional’ support is given to children due to potential ‘confusion’ or ‘loss of the home/heritage language’, and added that children ‘get English mainly through TV, YouTube or Netflix’. During interviews, parents expressed ambivalence about sustaining their home/heritage language along with English in the home setting. For example, they commented:
‘If I let my child use English at home and day care, he will be very confused.’
‘My child doesn’t know which language is which, so it’s better to keep just using our [home] language.’
‘English is very different from Vietnamese so all very confusing for my child.’
Parents do not appear to think that it’s their responsibility to support their children’s development of the English language as ‘they’ll pick it up anyway in the community’ (P34) and ‘they use it all the time in child care’ (P64). They were explicitly asked if they feel responsible to support children’s English language development and acquisition and 74% (N=62) of parents indicated that they ‘don’t feel responsible’ mainly because they ‘don’t know how to’. During interviews, parents were asked about their views on how their children’s home/heritage language(s) and English are fostered and supported in ECEC services. 75% (N=63) of parents said that they are ‘unaware of how languages are supported’ and 68% (N=57) reported that their ECEC service does not have an educator who speaks their home/heritage language.
While more data could be reported—which is beyond the scope of this article—these preliminary findings speak very loudly to a reality that needs evidence-based changes which help transform early childhood educators’ practices and the deep-rooted beliefs about language and language learning upheld by families and the wider community. Something needs to be done—what could that be?
Pre-service teacher preparation
Initial Teacher Education (ITE) providers must shift away from tokenistic ways of addressing cultural and linguistic diversity in their programs and move towards genuine, effective, cultural and linguistically-relevant pedagogies that prepare pre-service early childhood educators for a multilingual world.
It is paramount that higher education institutions work in collaboration with the ECEC community to develop targeted micro-credential courses for early childhood educators to gain relevant skills, competence, and confidence to address multilingual diversity in their services.
More academics and researchers should be brought into ECEC services to not only ‘gather data for their research’ but, most importantly, to create meaningful opportunities through professional development for early childhood educators to develop their pedagogical skills to respond to multilingual diversity.
There is a need for greater community efforts to engage families and ECEC services in partnership to deepen their mutual understanding of the benefits of multilingualism, and of the ‘in and out-of-school’ practices that can foster heritage language maintenance as well as the development of English.
It is essential that our multilingual families and children be put at the forefront of our practices in ECEC. Myths about bi/multilingualism need debunking, greater family partnerships need strengthening, and systematic preparation and support is needed for early childhood educators to operate in a multilingual world.
Baker, C., & Wright, W. E. (2021). Foundations of bilingual education and bilingualism (7th ed.). Multilingual Matters.
Esau, O. (2014). Enhancing critical multicultural literacy amongst pre-service teachers in a Bachelor of Education programme. Per Linguam, 30(3), 69–81. https://doi.org/10.5785/30-3-595
Krajewski, S. (2011). Developing intercultural competence in multilingual and multicultural student groups. Journal of Research in International Education, 10(2), 137–153. https://doi.org/10.1177/1475240911408563
Rowan, L., Kline, J., & Mayer, D. (2017). Early career teachers’ perceptions of their preparedness to teach “diverse learners”: Insights from an Australian research project. Australian Journal of Teacher Education, 42(10), 71–92. https://doi.org/10.14221/ajte.2017v42n10.5
ECA Recommends: Supporting bilingualism during early childhood
This webinar explores the topic of childhood bilingualism and how early childhood educators can help bilingual children develop language and communication skills during the early years. The webinar also looks at supporting bilingual educators as well as how to share language and culture with young children and their families.