Early Childhood Education

Language Diversity

 

Language use in early childhood classrooms is of growing interest and concern in the United States, where increasing numbers of children speak languages not spoken by their teachers. According to popular wisdom, there are over 6,000 languages in use today around the world. Educators know that speakers of a large proportion of these languages populate schools around the globe. Thus an understanding of linguistic diversity is key to understanding young learners of language and other skills and understandings, whether or not a classroom is designated “monolingual,” “bilingual,” or “multilingual.” To better understand and support language in the multicultural classroom, it is necessary to understand language development as it characterizes children’s engagement with the social and physical world and demonstrates the inherent sociolinguistic diversity of early childhood.

 

How Language Begins

Language, broadly defined, is a system that relates symbols—spoken, gestured, or written—to meanings. Its components include sounds or gestures; morphemes, the building blocks of words; grammatical rules that children eventually use to build sentences; and pragmatic rules that underlie the structure of conversations. Language is also a social phenomenon that begins well before children utter their first words. Imagining infants in or out of the home setting, then, we can think of them learning a symbol system in the company of others. Caregivers respond in varied ways to sounds, facial expressions, laughter, movements, and gestures as elements of early communication—infants’ first use of symbols to communicate meanings. Sociolinguists, researchers who focus on the social aspects of language, have demonstrated how differences among groups of infants and their caregivers emerge early in development, so that diversity and not uniformity becomes the norm in human interactions (Heath, 1983). Put another way, when any aspect of an interactive situation changes, a change in communicating can be obvious (for example, switching languages) or subtle (changing posture or facial expression). Young children are attuned to such situational differences well before they can talk about them.

For example, adults and children within the same family or social group become attuned to the patterns of particular “melodies,” high pitched or lower pitched, softer or louder, orchestrated with a range of movements, along with other aspects of communication. However, a major difference between infants learning language at home versus in a group setting is that in the latter there are always infants, more than one, who interact with caregivers and each other before they utter their first words. The infants may or may not belong to the same social and linguistic groups as their caregivers and peers. Thus the possibility for difference or variation in ways of communicating across groups may be present from life’s start.

 

Language as Play

With or without words, a key component of children’s interactions with each other is their playfulness. Through play with sounds, gestures, and, for most children, words, children participate in conversations about the physical and social worlds. They engage in varied forms of interaction and eventually transform gestures and movements into meanings in an imagined world. Through play— and the language that is a part of play—children first exercise control over the everyday world.

Play and storytelling often intertwine. When the curriculum of early childhood classrooms contains space for both, children’s language is frequently heard and can be documented by teacher researchers. Paley (2004), for example, has fashioned her nursery school and kindergarten classrooms into stages for children to dramatize their own stories. Children’s views on issues such as fairness and exclusion emerge in the language of stories and the play that is always embedded in them.

 

Sociolinguistically Diverse from the Start

Once children’s communicative symbols resemble the sounds or gestures of specific dialects or languages, the potential for exercising control over the everyday world grows. At the same time there are more opportunities for communication to occur across symbol systems—from nonverbal to spoken, and from one oral linguistic system to another. (See also the entry on Symbolic Languages as they have been interpreted and supported in Reggio Emilia.) In these cross system situations there are challenges to participants who know only one system of communication. Teachers who know only English, for example, may feel disadvantaged next to a teacher who is bilingual; a teacher who knows ASL (American Sign Language) has an advantage when working with children who use ASL or are deaf or hard-of-hearing. (See also the entries on bilingual education and second language acquisition.)

In the diverse settings that support second-language learners, adults work to bridge the linguistic systems. In the observation that follows, a public school prekindergarten teacher, Ms. Chan, is alert to the meanings of children’s nonverbal and verbal ways of communicating. Her classroom is seldom quiet, as talk in any language is encouraged in a range of situations, from dramatic play to singing to whole-group read-alouds. Ms. Chan also knows both English and Cantonese, the language spoken by many of the children in her room:

As the teacher begins to read [a book about butterflies], Andy calls out “Butterflies!” followed by some Cantonese. As she reads about the egg and the hatching of a tiny caterpillar, James and Andy both talk excitedly in Cantonese in response to Ms. Chan’s translation into Cantonese. They both look intently at the pictures that the teacher is showing the class. Once the caterpillar in the book hatched, Andy begins predicting.

Andy: (some Cantonese) ... Gonna turn butterfly!

Ms. Chan: Yes, its going to turn into a butterfly.

Kenneth: You, you, you gonna open it gonna open and let the butterfly, school ... out and fly!

Ms. Chan: Yeah, we are going to let the butterfly out!

Andy: (some Cantonese) Butterfly! Big butterfly! (Genishi, Yung-Chan, and Stires, 2000, p. 74)

Ms. Chan’s ability to understand what Andy and his friends knew and were excited about allowed her to make a small space in her curriculum for communicating across languages; that is, her bilingualism and attention to what engaged the children made the read-aloud of a book in English accessible to children just beginning to learn English. That piece of the curriculum became both permeable and informative to teacher and children.

This teacher’s curriculum makes learning accessible to her English language learners at the same time that it enhances learning in general. Although her bilingualism is a clear advantage for the Cantonese speakers in her class, it is not suggested that only teachers who know the children’s languages can be instrumental in their learning. (See Fassler, 2003, for an example of a teacher who knows only English in a classroom made up entirely of English language learners.) Moreover, linguistic differences exist across both languages and dialects, varieties of a language that differ in the components of sound, syntax or grammar, meaning system, and rules of use.

 

“Best Practices”?

The history of language arts education in the United States has shifted periodically in terms of policy regarding children who use languages and dialects other than the “standard,” with respect to languages other than English and African American Vernacular English (also referred to as Black English or Ebonics) (Baugh, 2000). With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the shift for children whose schools rely on federal funding has clearly been toward prescriptive methods of teaching standard forms to all learners, particularly as they relate to literacy (Dyson, 2003).

Much has been written about the need for evidence-based research to help educators identify “best practices” in language and literacy education. Unfortunately the chief measure for what is “best” has become a student’s score on a standardized achievement test. Thus practices that improve schools’ collective test scores in schools receiving federal funding are favored. Regardless of this fixation on test scores, researchers who look for evidence of what children and teachers do in real classrooms over time portray complex practices that cannot be reduced to packaged programs for teaching standard English or to the test scores the programs are intended to raise. Instead classroom researchers find highly specific practices that vary according to the linguistic and cultural characteristics of learners and their teachers. In classrooms where teachers use their knowledge of the children to support their diverse language and literacy learning, researchers note the following general characteristics:

• Teachers are skilled observers and listeners who look and listen for children’s own ways of communicating.

• The teachers’ daily schedules show flexibility within a predictable framework.

• The curriculum is adapted to allow for group preferences and for individual variation. In other words the teachers adjust to variation and do not expect uniformity.

• These teachers appear to have high expectations. They expect every child learner, whether or not she or he is a second (or multiple) language learner, eventually to enter the community of communicators—speakers or signers, listeners, readers, and writers—in short, to become master learners.

Effective teachers of children in classrooms characterized by language diversity cherish communication and connection. They accept and celebrate everyone’s need to be social, to have intentions and ideas and to communicate them freely, and often, to others. See also Development, Language.

Further Readings: Baugh, John (2000). Beyond Ebonics: Linguistic pride and racial prejudice. New York: Oxford University Press; Dyson, Anne Haas (2003). Popular literacies and the ‘All Children’: Rethinking literacy development for contemporary childhoods. Language Arts 81(2), 100-109; Fassler, Rebekah (2003). Room for talk: Teaching and learning in a multilingual kindergarten. New York: Teachers College Press; Genishi, Celia, Donna Yung-Chan, and Susan Stires (2000). Talking their way into print: English language learners in a prekindergarten classroom. In Dorothy S. Strickland and Lesley Mandel Morrow, eds., Beginning reading and writing. New York: Teachers College Press, pp. 66-80; Heath, Shirley Brice (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press; Paley, Vivian Gussin (2004). A child’s work: The importance of fantasy play. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Celia Genishi