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Language Barriers in Early Childhood Education for Ethnic Minority Children

  • 12 Pages
  • Published On: 05-12-2023

Beauchamp (2016) note that early childhood education is an important support for children in the sense that when children receive high quality education during their childhood, it improves their social outcomes significantly. According to Li, Ma and Wang (2013), most western nations have numerous numbers of minorities who use native languages to communicate. Most of these pupils are interfered or influenced by many things including their customs, cultures, and native languages. Some are also interfered with non-cognitive and cognitive factors. Language such as English learning and teaching is a bi-lateral process between a teacher and a pupil. This process facilitates the acquisition of the new language, improving their abilities and attitude to learn and acquire it (Li, Ma and Wang, 2013). Children from ethnic minority ethnic groups often experience cultural conflicts which inhibit their abilities to learn and acquire a new language. While studying the barriers of language in relation to early childhood education with children from ethnic minority backgrounds, it is important to probe into their ethnic thinking, the impact of their social environment, their psychological traits and cognitive modes, as well as their motivation to engage the learning process.

Language learning Barriers to early childhood education with EMBs Children

Based on the contemporary cognitive psychology, the language learning process of children from EMBs is an interrelated activity of the original language knowledge and the newly-learnt language knowledge in the individual’s cognitive structure to either expand their original structures or form new language cognitive structures. Because of the difference in ecological environments and geographic regions, EMBs have relatively isolated or independent traditional customs and lifestyles. Because of their distinctive cultures, they have inner-psychological modes including their cognitive and ethnic-thinking modes. The innate-ethnic psychology results in hesitation when the children are in new environments. This becomes a psychological barrier to learning a new language like English seen in their fear to speak out, answer questions or make mistakes (Wulandari, Juddah and Sunubi, 2018).


The above phenomenon shows the existence of psychological conflicts which result from innate-psychological cognitive-modes caused by an inadaptability of emotional expressions and thinking modes and their inadaptability to new requirements within new environments. This, according to (Van Mourik et al., 2017), shows that the psychology of language learning for EMBs children involves cognitive processes, mingled with psychological, environmental, determination, and emotional traits. Evidently, language learning in early childhood education is influenced by the children’s non-cognitive and cognitive factors (Van Mourik et al., 2017).

Impact of student motivation in learning language

According to Bower (2019), motivation is an internal incentive which spurs and motivates pupils to learn language. The language learning motivation of pupils comes from a learning need. This need is what urges learners to spend energy or make effort to be satisfied. These authors note that this need is what arouses the motivation to learn. Additionally, different needs produce varying levels of motivation which Maslow classified into the self-actualisation, esteem needs, belonging and love, safety and physiological needs (Bower, 2019). In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, learning motivation can be classified into internal and external motivations. It is expected that learning motivations should be aroused generally by a good future, that is, the promise of a hood job, higher education achievements and other life achievements, mostly external motivations. Learning motivation may also come from the interest to communicate with others, understand a foreign culture and knowledge (internal motivations). However, children coming from ethnic minority backgrounds may not be as motivated by the external barriers due to the numerous social-economic challenges their families, experience such as the difficulty to find employment, discrimination due to their colour or ethnic backgrounds, low income, lack of housing and other essential needs. The lack of such social needs reduces the children’s motivation to learn and satisfy the need to learn a new language, say English (Bower, 2019).

The impact of family factors

Song (2019) postulate that the first place where children get education is in their family. Therefore, factors like parents’ expectations, the parents’ educational backgrounds and the family’s economic status may influence a child’s language learning negatively or positively, These authors claim that the numerous influential factors from a child’s family on the pupil include occupation, the parents’ level of education, the parents’ attitude towards their children, the learning atmosphere created by the family, the influence or impact of the family’s ethnic language on a new language learning, the influence of the family’s culture, traditions, and customs on learning a new language like English (Song, 2019).

The influence of learning environment (school factors)

Khajavy, MacIntyre and Barabadi (2018) note that the teaching style used by teachers and schools influences the ability of children to learn language. These authors found that pupils learn language first when they view their teachers or classes as being interesting and vivid. The authors also contend that teachers play a critical role in help pupils to grasp the language knowledge, their development of ability or capability, the development of a good or positive attitude and the cultivation of learning interest. Therefore, teachers and schools have a load of responsibilities to help children from EMBs to learn language. Without making the classes interesting and vivid, the children might have difficulty grasping the language knowledge. They may lack the interest to acquire and speak the new language. Therefore, the teaching methods, and the level of teachers’ emotional intelligence plays a critical role in helping children from EMBs to learn a new language (Khajavy, MacIntyre and Barabadi, 2018).

Speech, Language and Communication Difficulties (SLCD)

According to Schaefer, Stackhouse and Wells (2017), language acquisition is an important aspect of the holistic development of a child during their early years. This acquisition requires grasping different sets of language components including syntax or the language rules, semantics or what the words mean, pragmatics or their meanings in context and phonology or how words are deconstructed or constructed using sounds (Hornsby and Wilson, 2014). Children develop also develop at varying rates where others may have more learning needs like the SLCD where those who have language development hindrance may have their learning, social life and communication abilities greatly affected (Tommerdahl, 2009). Children who have SLCD experience language, speech, as well as communication delays either because of mental or physical impartments. Lindsay et al. (2010) highlighted different language difficulties such as dys-fluency or stammering, understanding and applying or using language, feeding and swallowing difficulties, voice difficulties, and the problem of articulating or discriminating sounds.

According to Lindsay et al. (2010), there are three major causes of SLCD. The first one is the ‘primary need’ due to a neurological development challenge or the influence of socialisation. The second one is a child with developmental needs like autism and additional or underlying SLCD. The last one is SLCD that is linked to a child’s socio-economic background or challenges which limit their experience in life. Hayiou- Thomas’s (2008), on the other hand, claim that SLCD in children could be a genetic condition that influences or reduces a child’s reading ability, and causes low phonological awareness, as well as poor communication.

Strategies used to overcome language barriers

Improving the integration of ethnic cultures to overcome psychological conflicts

Yoon et al. (2017) note that practitioners and learning institutions should understand that ecological environments and the divergent living regions are also responsible for the independent lifestyles and traditional customs shown by children from EMBs. They are also the reasons there are distinctive ethnic cognitive modes and ethnic consciousness. To overcome the barrier brought by the cultural differences, teachers are drawing on the psychological difference to improve the efficiency of learning by changing the children’s psychological status. Teachers and learning institutions are continuing to promote respect for each individual’s unique ethnic cultures. They are also working to remove emotional and psychological barriers. Many learning institutions are adhering to the rules of learning ABCs of speaking and listening, and considering the rules of communicative content, as well as the cognitive rules (Yoon et al., 2017).

Helping children from EMBs to overcome language barriers

According to Yu and Shandu (2017), children from EMBs are often influenced, inevitably, by their native pronunciation, culture and language. The challenge in learning a new language like English pronunciation is based on the concept that some morphemes in other languages are absent in others. To help overcome this problem, teachers highlight this to the pupils to help them learn how to pronounce the difficult sounds in the new language to pronounce the words correctly and be motivated to learn rather than stick to the native pronunciations they are used to (Yu and Shandu, 2017).

Communication and early language skills initiatives

In the United Kingdom, early language is given high priority as is evident in how the nation has put a lot of focus on enhancing language skills by the enactment of Numeracy and Literacy Plans in Wales. In this region, early communication and early language skills initiatives like Flying Start (2014) have helped disadvantaged families like those from EMBs to prevent or tackle the challenge of SLCD (Welsh Assembly Government, 2015). The National Health Service is also offering Speech and Language Therapy for children experiencing specific slow learning and communication difficulties to reduce the impact that SLCD might have on their later life (Hughes and Davies, 2019).

Inclusive education and the collaboration between education and health services

Issa and Morgan-Short (2019) notes that a transition has been pushed to ensure that there is a collaboration between these two professions, the health and education service professions. This has helped ensure that that higher language learning and communication skills outcomes for children, especially those with SLCD are helped. The United Kingdom has also placed a lot of focus on inclusive education through legislation, to ensure that the language and communication needs, as well as the provision of high quality education is given to all children regardless of their social status or ethnic backgrounds. This has worked to support collaborative practice (Martin and Alborz, 2014).

Other measures

To tackle environmental barriers, Marshall and Lewis (2014) propose enhancing the exploration of children’s experience in schools, increasing the interaction between children (peers) and adults, acoustically aesthetic environment and literacy for children with SLCD. This is in line with the use of evidence-based programs done through the identification, evaluation or assessment and the provision of effective interventions based on evidence about successful language learning and acquisition in the classroom (Zucker et al., 2013). The intervention used for children with slow learning and communication difficulties are many, especially those which target language, speech and communication challenges, for instance, the Makaton and Derby shire Language Scheme used to support children and practitioners in cases of SLCD, the Adult-Child interaction scheme and Jolly Phonics (Roulstone et al, 2012).

Generally, there over fifty seven interventions which practitioners use in the UK to help overcome language barriers in early childhood education. These are grouped into three main implementation levels including the Universal interventions that all children, regardless of their backgrounds can access like Modelling Language, Visual aids, Talking Time and Word Wizard. The other category is the Targeted intervention used in children with moderate slow learning and communication difficulties. Examples include colourful semantics and narrative interventions. The last category is the Specialist intervention for children with persistent or chronic SLCD such as the use of language and speech links, Makaton training and phonological therapy (Walker et al., 2020).

Practitioners’ perceptions of the effectiveness of these strategies

Practitioners believe that the Communication and early language skills initiatives such as Flying Start, and the Speech and Language Therapy offered by the NHS have helped children with SLCD significantly. However, like parents, practitioners believe that there are challenges in accessing information about the programs, there is poor communication and continuity across agencies. Additionally according to Wright and Kersner (2004), the programs are similar to the ‘postcode lottery’ not accessible to all children but mostly those from affluent backgrounds. The professionals/practitioners also claim that the lack of communication and continuity is also worsened by the fact that provision of language units in mainstream schools is below what is expected, making it hard for the less privileged such as those from EMBs to access the important communication and language skills (Lindsay et al, 2010). Teachers are particularly positive about inclusive education especially when working together with other experts who are duly trained to tackle the language barriers.

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It is important to integrate ethnic cultures to help children from EMBs overcome some of the psychological conflicts which might hinder them from learning a new mainstream language. Teachers and learning institutions can also help learners to overcome this barrier according to their native pronunciation features, emphasising how to say some words correctly. Practitioners can also take advantage of the various existing methodologies or intervention strategies to help learners, especially those with SLCD to acquire language and communication skills efficiently.


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Bower, K., 2019. ‘Speaking French alive’: learner perspectives on their motivation in Content and Language Integrated Learning in England. Innovation in Language Learning and Teaching, 13(1), pp.45-60.

Hornsby, D. and Wilson, L., 2014. Early literacy is more than phonics. Practically Primary, 19(3), pp.12-15.

Hayiou-Thomas, M.E., 2008. Genetic and environmental influences on early speech, language and literacy development. Journal of communication disorders, 41(5), pp.397-408.

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