Why support diversity in childhood?

Dr Sarah Verdon Pedemont

There is currently a focus on teaching early years professionals how to support the diversity of the children they work with by engaging in culturally responsive practice. However, only recently has it become apparent that many professionals are unsure why it is useful, necessary or important to support diversity.

The existing evidence for supporting cultural and linguistic diversity in children is comprehensive, exciting and compelling. Benefits are present at the individual, community and broader social level. Over two thirds of the world’s population are multilingual, meaning that monolingual speakers are in the minority. But in English-dominant countries the many advantages of supporting diversity for children’s being, belonging and becoming are often unknown or are overlooked.

Cognitive advantages

When children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are having difficulty with their learning it is frequently recommended that they stop speaking language(s) other than English to focus only on English. While this recommendation has often been made with the best intentions, the evidence tells us that supporting children’s first or home languages, does not hinder, but in fact supports children’s acquisition of English.  Multilingual speakers often mentally translate learning material into their home language to process and consolidate new information. This is likely because they find it easier to understand complex material, store information, and integrate new knowledge into existing schemas of understanding in their first language. Furthermore, there is no evidence that competence in a language other than English is detrimental to English language and literacy proficiency.

Investigations into the relationship between multilingualism and cognitive outcomes has found that multilingualism is associated with increased:

  • mathematical aptitude;
  • abstract and symbolic representation;
  • attention;
  • problem solving;
  • phonological awareness;
  • vocabulary;
  • executive functioning; and
  • metacognitive capabilities.

Emotional advantages

All children have a culture and benefit from seeing their culture reflected in their early learning space. Having their culture present in their surroundings through images, language, music and experiences helps children to feel included, accepted and supported in their environment. It provides children with a sense of belonging, which creates space for developing a strong sense of identity, self esteem, self confidence and resilience. When multiple cultures are present in the same space it provides children with the opportunity to learn about diversity and the different approaches each child brings to learning, creating, communicating and expressing their personalities. Exploring these different approaches can enhance learning for all children in the space as they learn that there is more than one way to view and solve a problem.  

Multilingual speakers can also describe the experience of the world through the prism of multiple languages by using words and phrases to express emotions for which there is no translation in English. For example, kummerspeck”, which is the German word for weight gained from sorrow or emotional overeating, and translates to mean “bacon grief”, or “gigil” which is the Filipino word for the irresistible urge to squeeze something cute.  

Social advantages

Children who are exposed to multiple languages in early childhood have better social skills, including empathy and theory of mind, than children who are only exposed to one language. This is thought to be because multilingual speakers constantly need to evaluate what their speaking partner does or does not know in order to choose the correct language and cultural norms for their interaction. Interestingly, this increased aptitude in communication and social skills has been found in otherwise monolingual children who are exposed to other languages in their environment. This emphasises the benefits of exposing children to multiple languages in early childhood spaces.  

Economic advantages

Australians who are competent speakers of another language as well as English and are more likely to be employed, have postgraduate qualifications (such as a masters or PhD) and earn a higher salary than monolingual Australians. From a national perspective, Australia will be more strongly placed to participate in a globalised economy by having competent multilingual speakers who can work effectively across languages and cultures. Therefore, supporting the diversity of our children is essential for their ‘becoming’ as lifelong workforce participants and the indispensable contributors to our society.  

Early childhood educators play a vital role in supporting diversity so that this multitude of benefits can be realised. They have the opportunity to positively influence the minds of our children from their earliest moments. Through generational change comes societal change. By embracing diversity in our children, they will grow up to enjoy the benefits of such diversity in the world around them. Now, think again before questioning whether early childhood educators have the most important job in the world.

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