Australia is a nation that celebrates its rich cultural diversity, with people from all corners of the globe calling Australia home. This diversity has brought a tapestry of languages, making bilingualism a reality for many families. Bilingualism offers countless cognitive, academic, and cultural benefits for children (Fox et al., 2019). However, it also comes with its challenges, particularly in Australia, where first language attrition is a common issue (Jones Diaz et al., 2014). Intergenerational programs may be key to supporting bilingual children on their language journey.
The Importance of early bilingual support
As of 2021, nearly 23% of Australians reported speaking a language other than English at home. While this linguistic diversity is something to be celebrated, it also highlights the pressing issue of first language attrition. Only one in six bilingual children in Australia maintains their bilingualism until the end of high school. Many children start school with some proficiency in both their heritage language and English, but over time, they often lose their heritage language skills due to assimilation into Australia’s predominantly monolingual systems (Jones Díaz, 2014).
Studies have shown that strong foundations in the heritage language contribute to better literacy skills in English and overall academic achievement (Cummins, 2001; Hoff, 2018). Unfortunately, formal support for developing and maintaining a child’s heritage language is lacking. A recent survey conducted by Escudero and colleagues (2023) revealed that parents of bilingual preschool children in Australia are acutely aware of the need for more opportunities for their children to practice their heritage language. Despite this awareness, the availability of heritage language support programs remains limited, especially for preschool-aged children.
The potential of intergenerational programs
One innovative solution that could bridge this gap is bilingual intergenerational programs. Intergenerational programs bring together individuals of different ages for structured activities, creating mutually beneficial interactions. These programs have gained popularity due to the positive impact of intergenerational connections, especially for children who may have limited contact with their grandparents.
For bilingual preschool-aged children, an intergenerational program could be a game-changer. By pairing bilingual children with bilingual older adults, these programs could create a supportive environment for language learning and maintenance. Such programs could not only provide children with valuable opportunities to practice their heritage language but also benefit older adults by allowing them to maintain their language skills and foster intergenerational connections.
Potential benefits of bilingual intergenerational programs
Heritage language maintenance: Bilingual intergenerational programs could enable children to practice their heritage language in a meaningful context, helping them retain and develop proficiency.
Cultural connection: These programs would allow for the sharing of culture and traditions between generations, enriching a child's cultural identity.
Increased exposure to fluent adults: In a standard preschool setting, the adult-to-child ratio can be quite low. In contrast, intergenerational programs often provide a one-to-one adult-child ratio, ensuring more exposure to fluent adults.
School readiness: Exposure to multiple languages and cultures in an intergenerational setting can enhance a child's school readiness, setting them up for success in a multilingual society.
Closing the knowledge gap
While bilingual intergenerational programs have been implemented in other parts of the world, there is limited research on their effectiveness within an Australian context. This gap in knowledge highlights the need for further exploration into the feasibility, utility, and impact of bilingual intergenerational programs in Australia, especially concerning the language development and school readiness of bilingual children.
Australia's linguistic diversity is a valuable asset that should be nurtured and celebrated. Bilingual intergenerational programs have the potential to address the challenges faced by bilingual children and ensure they enter school with strong language skills in both their heritage language and English. These programs could also enrich children's lives and create meaningful connections between generations, fostering a more inclusive and diverse society.
Researchers at the University of New South Wales are actively seeking parents' perspectives on the idea of having bilingual intergenerational programs in the community, and an ongoing survey is open to gather valuable insights and feedback.
Share your thoughts via the survey
If you would like to take part and share your thoughts, please click here for more information: https://redcap.link/bilingualplay
Cummins, J. (2001). Bilingual children's mother tongue: why is it important for education? Sprogforum, 19.
Escudero, P., Diskin-Holdaway, C., Pino Escobar, G., & Hajek, J. (2023). Needs and demands for heritage language support in Australia: results from a nationwide survey. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1080/01434632.2023.2189261
Fox, R., Corretjer, O., & Webb, K. (2019). Benefits of foreign language learning and bilingualism: An analysis of published empirical research 2012–2019. Foreign Language Annals, 52(4), 699-726. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/flan.12424
Hoff, E. (2018). Bilingual development in children of immigrant families. Child Development Perspectives, 12(2), 80-86. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/cdep.12262
Jones Diaz, C., Cardona, B., & Escudero, P. (2014). Exploring the perceptions of early childhood educators on the delivery of multilingual education in Australia: Challenges and opportunities. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 0(0), 14639491221137900. https://doi.org/10.1177/14639491221137900