A child imbibes different features of the environment around him as he grows up; one of these is the language that he speaks in and communicates. The language that he uses to communicate lends him his unique identity. It has been observed all around the world that children are growing up speaking more than one language, and thus becoming bilingual, and even multilingual. This may sound encouraging, with the children perceived to be bright and receptive as they are being able to grasp more than one language and to reach out in them; however, the truth is that this is posing many a problem to children as well as to the parents and the teachers, and thus impeding development and progress.
The world has seen a rise in bilingualism and even multilingualism in recent years. Wei (2000) states that now on an average, one in three people all over the world are bilingual or multilingual. It is indeed remarkable to note that this is a universal trend, and is not seen to be dependent on the stage of development of the country, with both developed countries like Switzerland, Belgium and Canada as well as developing countries of Asia and Africa like India, the Philippines and Senegal showing this trend. A study of the trend in the United States of America reveals that most of the bilinguals live in California and New York, among other states. By 2035, California is expected to house children 50% of whom will speak and communicate in a language other than English (García, McLaughlin, Spodek, &Saracho, 1995). The Canadian Council on Learning (2008) states that in certain areas of Canada like Toronto, at least 50 % of the children speak a native language other than English.
These figures are noteworthy, and their effects need to be gauged. However, it is surprising to note that very little research has been conducted on this rise in bilingualism and multilingualism and their effects. My desire to choose this topic is motivated by my desire to delve into this trend, and investigate the effects of this not only on the said children and their progress and development, but also on the environment they grow up in.
There are many factors that inspired me to choose this topic of multilingualism in preschools; prime among them being the role of this trend on the children themselves. My motivation comes from personal experience as a second generation migrant family from a southern state of India residing in Mumbai. My foray into child psychology took shape with my Post graduation in Counseling Psychology from the University of Bombay, after which I ventured into the practical world of working with a group of well known K-12 schools in the western suburbs of Mumbai which brought me closer to children with learning disabilities. My experience with such children gave me a lot of insight into the problem, and I endeavored to put my experience and knowledge to fruitful use by deciding to work as an independent consulting psychologist with a school where my daughter was enrolled as preschool student.
And it is here that I came face to face with the problem of bilingualism and multilingualism. The basis of the problem was that the children of the school belonged to families where English was not the language spoken at home, whereas the language of communication at school was English. This created a lot of problems for these children who were at this tender age, and also for the teachers who were required by the school authorities to communicate only in English. Most teachers too relegated the regional languages to the background, and research has proved this to be a step away from development.
Additionally, it is imperative to understand that children in a preschool arrive with certain characteristics that are linked to their linguistic and cultural backgrounds. It has been proved that it is imperative for teachers to understand this knowledge that children bring in from their linguistic backgrounds (Cummins, 1986; Fillmore & Snow, 2002; Genesee, 1994; Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992). Along with this, it is necessary to comprehend the culture of the language that children bring to school.
The caregivers too came from non-English speaking families, thus facing similar problems. The children were thus exposed to multi- languages at this formative age, which by itself is not a problem, but the problem lies in the proper integration of all, which may not be possible for children at this age.. I observed that many a child was unable to develop early literacy skills that affected their academic performance. Both parents and teachers were stressed due to the pressure of striking a balance between the multiple languages that the children were striving to communicate in.
It was observed by me that this emphasis on English in preschools was the major reason for this conflict. In India, young children are enrolled into preschools where English is the language of instruction and communication. This is a major problem for the children who speak regional Indian languages at home, and are suddenly required to understand another language that is given more respect that their own mother tongues. The National Association for the Education of Young Children (1995) recommends that “Educators must accept the legitimacy of children’s home language, respect (hold in high regard) and value (esteem, appreciate) the home culture, and promote and encourage the active involvement and support of all families, including extended and nontraditional family units”. Sadly, this is not the case, and English assumes the most respectable position in most preschools, often disregarding the regional languages of the children and not giving them the esteem that they deserve. Added to this is the mindset of most parents in our country that makes them enroll their children in English medium schools although government schools offer education in the vernacular languages free of cost. These English medium preschools are the stepping stones to prestigious primary and high schools; thus parents are willing to sacrifice their regional languages at the altar of English; in the process often jeopardizing their children’s future by forcing them to be bilingual or multilingual and thus make them stumble in all the languages they imbibe.
I further interacted with teachers and parents in a pre school and daycare where I was working as an Academic director and later as Senior faculty of International Pre Teacher’s training college imparting online training to teachers. These interactions brought me closer to the stakeholders and gave me further insight into their thought process. This has reaffirmed my desire to understand the issues faced by the parents, teachers, and others related to the education of children, and thus devise appropriate strategies to empower them in finding the right solutions so that the winners are ultimately the children, the future citizens of our world.
Some questions that assail me are as follows:
- How does multilingualism influence day-to-day practice with children and families?
- What are the obstacles and difficulties (if any) that the practitioners face in providing effective curriculum delivery?
- Do teachers need any specific training? Should they possess any specific characteristics?
- What are the costs and benefits of multilingualism?
Park, E., & King, K. (2003). Cultural diversity and language socialization in the early years.Digests. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.