Is Brexit a threat, a challenge or an opportunity for the future of those nurseries fostering bilingual or plurilingual education in England?
At The Italian Day Nursery, the uncertainties brought by Brexit are seen as an opportunity to reflect on the value of exposing very young children to the acquisition of a European language in a multicultural, plurilinguistic environment.
Established in 1969 by a Catholic charity, the nursery was opened to meet the needs of the Italian community in London by preserving their cultural and linguistic heritage. It was by preserving their sense of identity that they felt welcome and came to accept the values of the host country. The nursery has received three consecutive Outstanding grades, in 2008, 2012 and 2015.
Over the years, it has changed to reflect the multiculturalism of the local and wider community. The current population of the children attending is a mix of Italians, Latin Americans, North Africans, Eastern Europeans and British. In light of offering a balanced bilingual education, how to respond to such a variety of cultures and languages?
RESPECT AND DIVERSITY
The children who do not speak Italian when starting will be unaware of learning a second language, as this will be acquired unconsciously through informal learning. Respecting cultural and linguistic diversity is fundamental for each child and their families to embrace a place where many are exposed to an unfamiliar language and culture for the first time.
Children are talked to and taught in Italian and English. They love suggesting the language in which they sing ‘Good Morning Everyone’, whether it’s Japanese, Arabic, Albanian, Spanish, French, Italian or English.
Mealtimes are precious for the acquisition of the Italian language through repetition and reinforcing concepts that are familiar to the child. Practitioners are aware of the importance of using descriptive and specific language and how language impacts a child’s thinking, whether in Italian or English. Language is reinforced by gestures. Sometimes, French-speaking staff use French expressions, to which children try to imitate the sound first and then respond accordingly in Italian or English. Language becomes the means to play, to communicate, to make friends and have fun.
FUN AND LEARNING
The Italian Day Nursery, Lambeth
But why should our nursery’s ethos be preserved and encouraged in the current political landscape?
We need to analyse children’s outcomes in communication and language development, and the impact of exposing them to bilingualism and multiculturalism on their cognitive, personal and social development. This is especially relevant for the funded two-year-olds who access the nursery. The gap in language development between disadvantaged and well-off children is narrowed, resulting in all children developing confidently.
It is remarkable how children from an Italian background are developing both languages at the same time. They can switch from one language to another depending on who they are talking to, displaying a rich vocabulary in both languages.
The children with no Italian background and with English as a second language are also progressing according to their expected level of development. At the same time, they are developing a complete understanding of Italian. Mouna, four, fluently speaks three languages: French at home, Italian and English at nursery, and she will be encouraged to learn Arabic, like her brother, from the age of six.
Mouna’s experience is mirrored by many other children. There is a complete acceptance on the children’s behalf, demonstrating that the acquisition of two or more languages happens in the same way as a child learns their first language. This is only possible when each child feels welcomed, their individual interests and needs are responded to, and nursery is a place of fun and enjoyment.
‘Only when diversity is experienced together can we see the similarities among us,’ says Mouna’s mother, our deputy manager, Malika Guendouz.
Ultimately, confronted by such positive outcomes, we see Brexit as an opportunity to preserve the richness that immigration brings to prepare the young children of our communities to be functional citizens of the world.