Paying lip-service to diversity

Diversity in early childhood education: valued or silenced? (Source:

Diversity in early childhood education: valued or silenced? (Source:

Bilingual education presents a major conundrum in contemporary diverse societies: on the one hand, bilingualism and diversity more generally are applauded in many educational discourses and widely seen as a good thing; on the other hand, schooling is all about mainstreaming, and bilingual children are more likely to lose their home language at school than extend it.

This schizophrenic state is produced by the discrepancy between the desire to support diversity and the trend towards an ever-increasing focus on standardized assessment, year-group performance targets and league tables. Contemporary educational policies often celebrate diversity and may well support bilingual learning. However, standardized assessment, year-group performance targets and league tables undermine diversity and bilingual learning and can be highly damaging to the academic achievement of minority students.

The British Statutory Framework for learning in the early years offers a case in point. The Statutory Framework is mandatory for all British education providers catering to children up to the age of five. In its Introduction, the Statutory Framework espouses four foundational principles, three of which highlight the diversity of children: ‘every child is a unique child;’ ‘children learn and develop well in enabling environments, in which their experiences respond to their individual needs;’ and ‘children develop and learn in different ways and at different rates.’

Before you read on, take a moment to reflect what ‘the individual needs’ of ‘the unique child’ might be in a linguistically diverse society. Are you thinking that all children should get the opportunity to experience different languages in early education? Are you thinking that children with a home language other than English should get the opportunity to develop both English and the home language? Are you thinking that a childcare provider should have measures in place that value all languages and promote linguistic diversity?

The Statutory Framework suggests that ‘providers must take reasonable steps to provide opportunities for children to develop and use their home language in play and learning, supporting their language development at home’ (p. 9) but offers no guidance what such ‘reasonable steps’ might be. However, even this limited vision of linguistic diversity in the early years is undermined in the assessment requirements. In fact, there is a fundamental contradiction between the recognition of children’s diversity and the requirement for the continuous assessment of child performance against learning targets. This contradiction is particularly explicit in the ‘communication and language’ area, a designated prime learning area. It is only English that is recognized as adequate performance in this area:

When assessing communication, language and literacy skills, practitioners must assess children’s skills in English. If a child does not have a strong grasp of English language, practitioners must explore the child’s skills in the home language with parents and/or carers, to establish whether there is cause for concern about language delay. (p. 9)

This assessment requirement equates ‘communication and language’ with English, and with English only. The assessment requirement effectively devalues all other languages, associating them with language delay and a deficit view.

What do these assessment requirements mean in practice in actual childcare centers? Education researchers Leena H. Robertson, Rose Drury and Carrie Cable, unsurprisingly, discovered that these assessment requirements undermine any form of bi- or multilingual provision in early childhood education. They found British childcare centers – including those that have multilingual teachers and staff – to be monolingual spaces where languages other than English are silenced.

Many childcare centers, in fact, employ bilingual teaching aides. However, the role of these teaching aides is so constrained both by the assessment requirements and their marginalized position vis-à-vis ‘regular’ early childhood educators that all they can hope to achieve is support children’s transition from home language to English. As one Urdu bilingual teaching aide interviewed by Robertson and her colleagues explained:

They’re losing everything. So if you had a little input of their first language, I think that would be a benefit for everybody; parents, families, schools and children because the more languages they have the better. […] Now all the children who’ve been through my time at let’s say [this school], not many of them are reading or writing their first language at all. (Robertson et al. 2014, p. 619)

For children who have a home language other than English this means that – rather than their individual needs being recognized and supported as those of ‘the unique child’– they are streamlined into monolingual children. For all children, irrespective of their home language, the silencing of languages other than English in this first institutional space they are likely to encounter in their lives is a lost opportunity.

The overall result is that the Statutory Framework creates the illusion that linguistic diversity is valued in early childhood education while simultaneously rendering languages other than English illegitimate and worthless forms of ‘communication and language’ for young children. Robertson, L., Drury, R., & Cable, C. (2014). Silencing bilingualism: a day in a life of a bilingual practitioner International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 17 (5), 610-623 DOI: 10.1080/13670050.2013.864252

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller

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    This article reminds me of a story of a colleague of mine saying that her children, when they are brought back to Indonesia, they could no longer speak Bahasa Indonesia properly. It happened only in one-year period of staying in Australia when my colleague was undertaking her PhD. Reading through the article is very thought-provoking, as Dr. Piller presents both sides of the coin of embracing multilingualism in a practically English speaking country. My thought is with the children themselves, as looking at my colleague’s case, I am very torn in two perspectives: as Indonesian, I am so much proud when my generation and the generations after are able to be the global citizen, with this I mean to be able to speak English and the like. To share further, English is seen as a prestigious language for Indonesian people. However, in a contrary position, I am terrified by the fact that Indonesian young generation, who lives in English-spoken country, will be forgetting their own home language, as is presented in the interview quoted above. In my opinion, parents and home-country association (organisation, union, and the like) should be encouraged to play role as a ‘gatekeeper’ that will make sure that the children are given enough exposure to their own home language, and culture.


    Thank you for another insightful post regarding multilingualism in early childhood education.
    I do believe that the benefits that linguistic diversity can bring to children are obvious, however, it is not always possible for early childhood institutions to develop bilingual (or multilingual) programs for their students. The lack of qualified bilingual teachers, teaching materials or financial resources can become some of the major challenges for them.

  • 000

    As much as I agree with implementing bilingual education for students to learn their home language as well as English, I think that every student has different needs and with more than 250 languages spoken in Sydney, there is just not enough resources to do so. What about children who come from mixed ethnicities, like having bi-racial parents or parents from a mixture of backgrounds, who talk to their children in at least two languages other than English? I know of many second-generation immigrant children who may have spoken at least two languages other than English before attending primary school. If bilingual education was offered, how would they choose which language to learn? Or, would they try and learn three languages at once? I’m not sure if schools would have enough resources to do that.

  • Dwitiya Nugrahaeni

    This article reminds me of the other article in this blog about the pride of having linguistic diversity. From what I can conclude, linguistic diversity and bilingualism seem to remain slogans. Although some institutions and communities have been making efforts in preserving and maintaining students’ languages, the government need to provide real supports (more structured regulations) that go along with their claim in supporting students’ home language. Seeing that Australia is very diverse in terms of languages and cultures, I think that this can be a good first step since with clear regulations, it would open opportunities for clear evaluations, more research, and more steps that can be taken to handle the shortcomings.

  • Roxxan

    Thanks for the post relates to children education. I absolutely agree the point in the article that ‘bilingual children are more likely to lose their home language at school than extend it.’ One of my Chinese friend sent her 4 years old child to a bilingual teaching school in Australia. Several months later, she found that her child often speaks two languages in one sentences. For example, her child says ‘ I yao an apple’. That ‘yao’ is Chinese means ‘want’. My friend began to be nervous that even her child understand two languages, but she could not speak with the same language in one sentence. As a consequence, she has to move back to China and settle her child to a Chinese monolingual school. As every parent wishes their child to attend a bilingual teaching, however, they may failed to realise their children’s abilities of learning.