Like all families, Indigenous families want their children to have fun and flourish in early childhood educational settings.

For early childhood educators, this involves us working with local staff, community members, the children and their families to get to know each child they work with.

For non-local or non-Indigenous educators, this places an extra responsibility on them to learn about children’s rich knowledge of language(s), cultures, relationships and everyday life in their communities. Through this, educators are able to build on the knowledge they bring to preschool from home. Working with the children will also build an appreciation of the fact that many children are knowledgeable about more than one culture – grandparents and parents may be from different cultural backgrounds and the child has the richness of all that their relationships with family bring to them.

Many early childhood educators will have had little or no guidance on how young children are learning SAE alongside and in addition to their home language(s).

Do not worry! That is what the Language Zone is here for. In addition to this information, the Educator Zone walks you through how to deliver specific activities for your young SAE language learners. If you are not a local language speaker, it is important to partner with local-language speaking educators or community members (see Partnering with family and community for more advice.)

We can all learn how to support children in their early additional language learning to put them on a positive and respectful pathway to become bidialectal and multilingual speakers, with increasing proficiency in SAE.

The importance of the first language

A first language is the language children have learned in the home through interactions with caregivers. Remember, for Indigenous children, their first language may be a traditional language, a new contact language or an Aboriginal English or Torres Strait Islander English. Many Indigenous children will hear and learn parts of more than one language in their home environment.

A first language plays an important but sometimes unseen role in early childhood education.

Children communicate best in their first language; the main language they use with their caregivers. This is the language they speak most fluently. They use this language in their everyday life, to negotiate and learn about their world, to share a story, express feelings or ask a tricky question. Children are also likely to use their first language ‘internally’ (that is, to imagine, to dream or to think).

A child’s first language is the main resource relied on for intellectual development and part of their identity. That is why it is important that educators acknowledge, respect and value the language(s) that children speak at home and in their communities.

How can educators value Indigenous children’s first language while adding Standard Australian English?

We can do this in many ways in the early childhood setting. For example, by:

  • encouraging children to interact, in their first language, with ‘like language speakers’, e.g. their peers or siblings or cousins
  • including adults who speak the children’s first language to listen to children’s learning experiences and to tell children stories
  • using local language-based resources such as songs and books
  • becoming language learners ourselves! Always discuss how to go about this with local Indigenous staff. It is also a good idea to consider how you will communicate your intentions to children’s caregivers, for example modelling being a keen language learner, acknowledging children’s language and building their pride in their language super powers
  • supporting recognition of new contact languages.
  • valuing Aboriginal English and Torres Strait Islander English.

Young Indigenous learners of Standard Australian English as an additional language/dialect

The counterpart of valuing Indigenous children’s first languages is that we acknowledge and value their second language learning of SAE. In the early childhood setting we cater to children being learners of SAE as an additional language by ensuring they:

  • experience carefully planned SAE learning opportunities connected to familiar environments
  • have the opportunity to practise SAE learning in meaningful contexts
  • develop pride and confidence as SAE language learners.
  • have educators confident to recognise and harness impromptu SAE language learning moments.
How can educators support Indigenous children to learn SAE in addition to their first language?

Learning additional languages takes time. In the early stages, young children learning a second language rely on meaningful, contextualised language which they hear many times. For example, having opportunities to hear and use the same core vocabulary in similar sentences when talking about the sea animals in a pretend underwater play area based on a favourite book/DVD, when growing plants from seed in an observation area visited daily etc.

You can:

  • plan to use SAE language that would be useful for children’s popular play-based topics or favourite activities
  • provide plenty of opportunities for children to hear and use the language (words and sentence patterns)
  • provide positive feedback. Everybody does better with positive feedback! Young learners of English do too. Tell children they are doing a great job when they try using some English you have introduced to them. The Educator Zone has many suggestions for activities that support and extend language acquisition and use with EAL/D learners.
How can educators value children’s traditional Indigenous languages?

This depends entirely on where you are!

Traditional Indigenous languages are those languages spoken by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people since before colonisation. Across Australia, traditional languages have strong and enduring links to Country, culture and identity for Indigenous peoples.

In some places, the local traditional language is strong and children learn it as babies, automatically, as their first and main language because everybody around them is speaking it all the time. Elsewhere, children might not hear their traditional language as often, but they will pick up words and phrases to the extent they hear them. In some places many different traditional language groups might be represented.

Always consult with Indigenous staff, family and community members about how best to include the local traditional language/s into the preschool program with support from local speakers of the language. It may help to remember the following:

  • If the traditional language is no longer spoken right through, there is often a determination to revitalise and rebuild languages from Elders and/or archival material.
  • Children who have a proud and confident sense of identity will be better learners, and this can be fostered by knowing their traditional language, to the extent the local context allows. It is also fostered by valuing all first languages children bring.
  • Research shows that speaking more than one language (multilingualism) has many positive benefits for the brain and for social interactions.

Note that the term ‘traditional’ is seen by some as locating the languages in the past and many prefer the generic term 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Languages'. It is used here to help you to distinguish and understand the type of language environment that you are working in.