Early Learning Environments: Embracing and Valuing Home Languages

Early Learning Environments: Embracing and Valuing Home Languages

Sheron C. Burns (The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados) and Janice E. Jules (The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus, Barbados)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-4075-6.ch010

Abstract

The literature establishes that a child's language development begins before birth and precedes to the beginning of formal education. For this reason, the first place of learning is the home, under the guidance of parents and family. Therefore, on entering a school system, a young child already has a base of knowledge and can communicate competently in many ways. However, often the child's communicative competence in some aspects contrasts with the standards of school culture. This chapter sets out to highlight the importance of incorporating children's home languages into their formal learning environment during the first eight years of life. Further the chapter underscores the need to maximize the learning process, while respecting learners' cultural and personal identities, learners and their parents and guardians must be able to understand the significance of language for communication. Accordingly, providing a quality early learning experience must include accepting, embracing, and valuing each learner's home language.
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Introduction

A learner’s home language, also termed first language, mother tongue or native language, is essential to healthy self-esteem and cognitive development as it is intertwined with his or her family and culture as well the ability to reason practically. Since home language is so important in learning and development, it should be considered the basis of a learner’s ability to build knowledge (Firgens, 2013). Smith-Khan (2018) reported that according to The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), approximately 40% of learners worldwide do not have access to education in their home language. This situation occurs despite awareness of (Mfum-Mensah, 2006) the cognitive and other benefits that accrue from using learners’ first languages as the medium of instruction during their early stages in school. Furthermore, policy directives vary regarding the approaches to enable learners with alternative home languages to access formal education. Accordingly, Craig (2006) claimed that as young learners begin school, they must be allowed and encouraged to communicate freely with peers and teachers using their home language. A further suggestion is that (Craig, 2006; Simmons-McDonald, 2014) in situations where the learners use two or more distinct languages, teachers can apply direct instruction in home language. However, while the aforementioned method requires the teacher to be competent in the home language, currently the integrated, informal, explorative nature of educating young learners lends itself to an approach that does not necessitate the teacher possessing expert knowledge of the learners’ home language. As such, the ideal position is to create a welcoming space where young learners feel their home language is accepted, embraced and valued. On that account, while it is common practice for national and school policies to dictate the application of the Standard as the language of instruction, (Anyiendah, 2017; Fullan, 1996, 2012) classroom practitioners are the engines that drive classroom education innovation and practice. This means that (Can, 2012) teachers’ experiences and their special awareness of learners and the classroom context in which they learn are aspects that are regarded highly. Therefore, for young learners whose home language is labeled as non-conforming, it is the responsibility of early childhood teachers and caregivers to create the spaces where they have quality learning experiences that demonstrate value of their home language and promote its use. Furthermore, as this chapter outlines the key concepts of home language and the enabling early learning environment, it seeks to:

  • 1.

    Reach out to individuals who collectively affect young learners’ school experiences such as practitioners, caregivers, parents and policymakers, for them to recognize and embrace the impact of home language on the learning and development process.

  • 2.

    Reflect on perspectives which embrace home language in early learning environments to highlight the benefit to young learners by building on their existing language base.

  • 3.

    Provide practical strategies that can be employed to value home language in the learning environments for young learners.

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Background

Worldwide, classrooms are invariably spaces where multiple languages may exist. In this regard, (Essa, 2014) the 2009 United States (US) census revealed that approximately 20% of Americans speak a language other than English at home. Hence, it seems reasonable that the 1989 ratification of the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child called attention to the quality of experiences to which young children are exposed (UN General Assembly, 1989). This declaration was inspired by an increase in young learners accommodated in formalized early childhood environments. While learners experience these formal settings, research illustrates that (Barrow, 2008) during the first 1000 days of their life, physical and motor skills are developed alongside the abilities to communicate and socialize, to think and understand. For this reason, it cannot be overemphasized that during this initial phase, home language pervades the normal course of the young learners’ family life so that it is a key feature of those early moments.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Mesosystem: Urie Bronfenbrenner’s second level of social/environmental influence on a child’s development which is the consequence of the interaction with other groups/microsystems in society.

Funds of Knowledge: The knowledge and skills acquired during everyday experiences that are historically and culturally unique and define identity.

Early Years: The years between birth and eight years; also known as the early childhood stage.

Home Language: The initial language an infant is exposed to in the immediate environment Also referred to as first language, native language, or mother-tongue.

Language Development: The process of acquiring the ability to communicate which begins with the child recognizing the pitch of the mother’s voice and eventually being able to use words effectively to convey ideas and make requests.

Macrosystem: Urie Bronfenbrenner’s fourth level of social/environmental influence on a child’s development which is the consequence of the wider society’s culture, government, and customs.

Microsystem: Urie Bronfenbrenner’s first level of social/environmental influence on a child’s development which is the consequence of the immediate interaction with parents, guardians, family members, and close friends in the immediate home circle.

Early Learning Environments: Places outside of the primary home where children are cared for and educated during the early childhood phase of human development.

Enabling Environment: An environment that is conducive to the culturally and developmentally appropriate ways that young children learn.

Exosystem: Urie Bronfenbrenner’s, third level of social / environmental influence on a child’s development which is the consequence of direct contact with the parents and family members.

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