Overcoming language barriers in early childhood education : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in Sociology at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
New Zealand’s increasingly heterogeneous population places manifold demands on the education sector to educate and integrate children who do not speak English. Children of migrant background attending early childhood settings are assumed to benefit in English language obtainment from attending early years educational facilities, but does the mere placement in such settings achieve the desired outcome? Limited research exists into how minority language children acquire English whilst attending preschool settings, how this impacts on their first language, or on how teachers support their second language development.
There is little insight into what motivates teachers in their interactions and decision-making, how they adjust teaching content, and whether they engage in language-specific teaching activities at all. To address this gap, this study considers questions regarding the relationship between early childhood teachers’ knowledge of second language acquisition and the type of support they report implementing. I investigate educators’ views and reported practices, as well as the influence of professional training, institutional policies, and philosophies.
This research used a qualitative perspective and was benchmarked against comparative reflections of my own teaching experience. The inductive methodology involved semi-structured interviews of early childhood practitioners, covering a selection of educational settings in the Wellington region that practise distinct philosophies.
Results show that teachers rely on their centres’ philosophies and socio-cultural practices as per Te Whāriki - the New Zealand curriculum - in their work with minority language children. The consensus was that early childhood education is to prepare language foundations through emotional confidence and cultural capability, not to set
academic standards, and children’s perceived natural ability to learn by osmosis is accorded much credence. These findings suggest that teachers’ knowledge regarding complex language and cognitive processes could be significantly improved. Furthermore, support for te reo Māori and Pasifika first languages in New Zealand notwithstanding, practices tend to facilitate institutionalized monolingualism. Future research in all migrant language learning would add to the knowledge base about second language acquisition in New Zealand and the role of early childhood education in this dynamic. As well, there is scope for a discussion on language inequities and the possibilities of a plurilingual society.