Australia is a diverse, multilingual country, with more than 200 languages spoken. However, fewer second-generation Australians speak their parents’ mother tongues than in some other Western countries.
Only one in five of the 4 million Australians with an overseas-born parent can converse in their parent’s language, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In Canada, by comparison, more than half of second-generation Canadians can speak a parent’s tongue.
New research aims to explore how this intergenerational language transfer can be improved, especially in the critical developmental period of early childhood, because it also helps in learning English.
Linguist Dr Sumin Zhao, of the University of Technology Sydney, is mapping how digital resources, such as mobile and tablet apps and web applications, can increase bilingualism and literacy in preschoolers aged three to five years.
“Some people in our society are panicking about children using iPads and are concerned about negative implications,” Dr Zhao says. “But many others see the positives, such as using apps to read interactive picture books.”
Dr Zhao says children’s authors including Shaun Tan, Nick Bland and Judith Kerr have already made their books more accessible using apps and interactive technology. And children themselves are using apps to create personal digital storybooks, with the help of parents and teachers.
Dr Zhao argues that different technology tools can provide a bridge for immigrant parents who don’t speak English confidently to participate in their children’s education.
“Many of the parents feel disempowered, but if they use these rich resources they can become involved,” she says.
Well-documented research shows that speaking a mother tongue at home does not inhibit a child’s development of English, says Dr Zhao. In fact, the stronger a child’s skills are in their first language, the easier it is for them to learn a second, and even a third.
To implement the first stage of her study, Dr Zhao is seeking participants who are parents of three- to five-year-olds or staff at preschools and childcare centres. Her project will investigate which resources – digital or otherwise – participants use to promote literacy and bilingualism.
KU Children Services, which provides for 12,500 families nationally at 150 childcare centres and preschools, is already on the front foot with its use of digital tools.
The company recently finished a successful pilot of Storypark, a secure social media platform that enables centres and families to share photos, videos and text about children’s activities.
KU Village Green Children’s Centre, in the north-western Sydney suburb of Bella Vista, was one of nine centres that took part.
The centre’s director, Suzi Scott, says Storypark was especially helpful for families where the child was unsettled when he or she was dropped off.
“Later, we could send the parents photos or videos of the child enjoying time with friends, running around the centre or playing with Play-Doh,” Scott says.
“It’s all in real time and the child can participate; we ask them ‘what do you want to tell mummy and daddy about this?’
“The parents can then invite an aunty, uncle or grandparent in Australia, Botswana or elsewhere to receive it, too.”
Overseas family members can respond with comments, photos or videos about a particular festival, for example, which the child can then share at the centre, creating “a new level of communication and inter-connectedness”, Scott says.
In the next stage of her study, Dr Zhao will devise guidelines about how families, especially from non-English-speaking backgrounds, can better access the wide choice of digital tools.
“We want to see how parents can bring more resources inside the home, and also use apps from other countries, that might help children speak their mother tongue and improve literacy,” she says.
Dr Zhao is also in the middle of a project in the UK with Dr Rosie Flewitt, from University College London, understanding how videophone calls (using software such as Skype) help intergenerational communication with overseas relatives and improve bilingualism in British children. She hopes to do a similar study among Australian children.
To participate in Dr Sumin Zhao’s research, go to https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/ML6DV5J (for early childhood educators) or https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/MLTBYR9 (for parents of preschool children). The research involves a confidential online questionnaire that should take no more than 10-15 minutes.