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Opinion: Why support diversity in early childhood?

In recent times, a large emphasis has been placed on supporting diversity in early childhood education. However, it has only recently become apparent that many professionals are unsure why this is necessary.

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

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Diversity in the classroom is a good thing: Sarah Verdon.

Cognitive advantages

When children from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds are having learning difficulties,  it is frequently recommended that they focus only on English. While this is often well-intentioned, evidence suggests that supporting children’s other languages in fact assists their English acquisition.

There is also no evidence that competence in a language other than English is detrimental to English literacy.

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

  • Mathematical aptitude.
  • Abstract and symbolic representation.
  • Attention.
  • Memory.
  • Problem solving.
  • Phonological awareness.
  • Vocabulary.
  • Executive functioning.
  • Metacognitive capabilities.

Emotional advantages

All children benefit from seeing their culture reflected in their early learning. Having their culture present through images, language, music and experiences helps them feel included, accepted and supported. It provides them 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 is the German word for weight gained from sorrow or emotional overeating. It translates to ‘bacon grief’ in English. Another example is gigil: 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 those 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 (aside from English) and are more likely to be employed, have postgraduate university qualifications, and earn higher salaries than monolingual Australians.

From a national perspective, Australia will be better placed to participate in a globalised economy by having multilingual speakers. Therefore, supporting the diversity of our children is essential for their ‘becoming’ as indispensable societal contributors.

Early childhood educators play a vital role in supporting diversity so that its multitudinous benefits are realised. By embracing diversity in our children, they too will grow up to enjoy its benefits. Now, think again before questioning whether early childhood educators have the most important job in the world.

Dr Sarah Verdon is a research fellow at the Research Institute for Professional Practice, Learning and Education (RIPPLE) at Charles Sturt University.

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3 comments

  1. Multiple cultures in the classroom also provides a very rich teaching experience for the teacher.

  2. Genevieve O'Reilly

    Oh if only we could truly celebrate our differences instead of making them points of measuring, conflict and superiority! It is beyond my comprehension why we view humanity through such a fragmented lens.
    Well done, on providing these insights.

  3. Suzanne C. Hopf (@SLPinFiji)

    Thank you Dr Verdon for a wonderful summary and some great advice. I think the lessons in your message are applicable to people working with children the world over.

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