Language, Culture and Identity in the Early Years
reviewed by Cuthbert Rowland-Storm - July 17, 2014
We feel that the key ingredient to this success is the conviction of the entire staff that this is not a problem; rather this is simply how things are. (Issa & Hatt, 2013, p. 194)
In their ambitious and important book, Language, Culture and Identity in the Early Years, Tözün Issa and Alison Hatt attempt to do a number of things. They explore the history of British attitudes and governmental policies to bilingualism in the context of early years education and the research on the effects of bilingualism on the development of young children. At the same time, they examine early years education in generallooking at influential thinkers, notable research, and policies that either honor or ignore the thinkers and the research. Additionally, they discuss their study and observations of an exceptional Early Years Centre and two less exceptional Reception classes over two years.
The history of bilingualism in the United Kingdom is long and controversial. The authors assert that the United Kingdom has always been multicultural and multilingual, but that political climates have changed the perceptions of this diversity through time. In the book, they pay particular attention to research and developments since the 1950s. They detail the benefits of bilingualism for young children including its effects on metalinguistic awareness, in contrast to the old and persistent myth that it is detrimental to learn multiple languages. Their critique of the policies that perpetuate the myth is strong, because of how damaging the myth is to the development of young bilingual children, as it ignores their strengths and particular needs for development, and treats them as a problem.
For their second purpose, the authors go back to Rousseau to find advocates for effective early childhood education. They present an overview of Western thinkers on what is beneficial for young children, leading to ten principles of early years educationprinciples that advocate for child-centered and -directed learning and positive interactions with adults and peers. They contrast this with government policies and the National Curriculum, which they believe to be too structured. While the early authors they mention do not give explicit advice for young bilingual children, Issa and Hatt are able to find ways to make the early authors relevant for children who are bilingual. At the same time, they are quite critical of the National Curriculums cursory understanding of and utilization of the needs and strengths of bilingual children, and its strict reliance on traditional literacy and numeracy, at the expense of culture, language, and areas that lead to personal, emotional, and spiritual development.
The Early Years Centre that they highlight uses its students linguistic and cultural diversity as a strength. This diversity appears in engaging displays, enthusiastic, knowledgeable (though mostly monolingual) staff, and relevant, dynamic activities. Each of the practices the book highlights emphasizes the students strengths, interests, culture, and language, and from the enthusiasm of the parents and the knowledge of the students, the practices seem very effective. The book could have included even more practical examples of both the practices of the center and the perspectives of the students and families. The quote at the beginning of the review highlights the positive, enthusiastic environment of the Early Years Centre (in pointed contrast to the traditional view of bilingualism as a problem to face).
Unfortunately, sometimes the ambitions of the project seem to get in the way of the successful handling of any of the tasks the authors set out for themselves. The research cited in defense of bilingualism is so vast that each study is only briefly discussed, so briefly that it is sometimes difficult to understand the findings of the study and how much weight to give it. The discussion of early years education is also wider than it is deep, with many thinkers being introduced rather thoroughly and then forgotten, only to be replaced by the work of others who were not introduced. Finally, the work of the Early Years Centre is alluded to frequently with teasing examples of its effective practices, with the culmination being that the examples are repeated, leaving the reader wanting more, like in a film where all the interesting parts are in the commercial. Ironically, the critique of the Reception classes is more thorough and systematic than the descriptions of the admirable practices of the Early Years Centre. The three main topics of bilingualism, early years education, and the Early Years Centre are not always clearly linked. Some of what I am critiquing may come from my American perspective and lack of familiarity with British academic texts, however. Nonetheless, in addition, the book contains errors that any author could make, such as repetition and unclear sentences, but that a thorough editing should have weeded out. The lack of that editing comes across as a lack of adequate appreciation of the topic by the publisher.
The flaws of the book are inconsequential in comparison with the importance of the topics, but the organization of the book distracts from the content. Without having a clear orientation to the importance of the research cited, the reason for the references to important thinkers about early years education, or the true breadth of important practices by the Early Years Center, the reader loses some of what the book is trying to get across. Nonetheless, the authors make a good case for the importance of bilingualism and culturally and linguistically relevant practices, as well as child-led, dynamic, relevant pedagogy for very young learners. The Early Years Centre highlighted sounds like a very effective place of education as well as an environment of which students, families, and staff would enjoy being a part. The centre not only follows the research described in the book, but it does so joyfully. It provides the intended reader, an adult working with or planning to work with young students, some compelling strategies for effectively working with bilingual children, and hopefully should leave them wanting even more.