When I got my first ‘real job’ in an early years setting in Ireland, I was appointed a preschool room leader and asked to begin in early September one year. I remember being very excited about my new role and having ideas for what games I could play with the children and imagining what we would talk about. Little did I know, my first day was also the first day of the ‘ECCE scheme’. I didn’t know that for 9 of the 11 children starting in my room, English would be a new language. Needless to say, I had to quickly reconsider my plans! I had to first look for ways in which I could get to know the children, help them to settle in, and make sure that their needs were met.
This is when my ‘Polishness’ became a valuable asset. It allowed me to talk to all the children of Polish heritage and their carers, in their home language. To some extent, I was also able to communicate with children of other Eastern European descent and their families, as our Slavic languages would hold certain similarities. The shared language and heritage helped build trust and develop relationships, so important when working with young children, especially if they represent non-majority backgrounds.
I soon became the translator between these families and the other staff members, but first of all, the advocate for the voices of the bilingual and multilingual children. I was lucky to be able to respond to their questions and offer them immediate support. I listened to their stories, jokes, ideas and daily news, and could pass them on to the others in the room, so they could become part of our daily curriculum. It was very rewarding to be able to give the children their say and help them to express themselves. On the other hand, it always made me think about the children who, due to the lack of common language, couldn’t communicate as easily in their preschool rooms. This was the case for a few children in my room, who did not use Polish nor English as their first language. I wondered how it would impact on their early experiences and developing identities.
I believe that it is beneficial to all children to have bilingual early years’ teachers and to use heritage languages in the setting. For bilingual and multilingual children, it promotes their identities and sense of belonging, helps them to practice and develop their home language(s) which, in turn, allows them to master English to a greater extent. For children who use the majority language only, being exposed to a bilingual learning promotes language awareness and appreciation of diversity.
In practice however, it is most likely that we won’t know all languages spoken at home by the children we work with. So, what can we do to best support them? I think that we could start by trying not to focus too much about the perceived ‘language barrier’. Having best intentions at heart, we can sometimes overly concentrate on the child’s linguistic skills, and in particular, on how they can master English as quickly as possible. There is a risk that by doing so, we may unconsciously label the child as ‘the one with no English’ and see them predominantly through this single lens. As a result, we can miss other characteristics, traits, dispositions, likes and needs that make this particular child the individual they are. If, however, we embrace the strength-based approach, facilitate playful, hands-on learning experiences, based on the interests of the child, and provide a language-rich environment, the learning of English will happen naturally, as a matter of course.
David Whitebread (2015, p.6) summarises the key needs of all children stating that ‘if they are to thrive emotionally and intellectually, young children need to feel love and self-worth, they need to feel emotionally secure and they need to feel in control’. It is no different for the children who use English as an additional language. We first need to make sure that their universal needs are met – that they feel safe, appreciated, included, empowered and content. Only then we can focus on the language, which, however important, is only one part of their learning and identity.
P.S. For useful, accessible and practical strategies to support bilingual and multilingual children in our daily practice and especially during the settling-in period, it may be worth accessing the PEaCH guide for educators on how to support multilingual children in daycare and education, developed as part of an Erasmus+ project and funded by the European Commission.
Whitebread, D. (2015) ‘Introduction: young children learning and Early Years teaching’, in Whitebread, D and Coltman, P., eds., Teaching and Learning in the Early Years, London: Routledge, (1-21).
Alicja McCloskey is a lecturer in Early Childhood Education in Mary Immaculate College (MIC), Limerick. Alicja’s interests include cultural and linguistic diversity; the young child’s rights, voice and agency; power relationships between the child and adult and ethical considerations in research with young children.