Fitting in the Multicultural Classroom…

When I first moved to Sydney, I was the weird kid. I had a very heavy French accent and I spoke very minimal English. The English I did know was cringe-worthy, I mimicked my dad’s proper British accent, my grammar was all over the place. Within a few days of being in my Year 1 class, the teacher rang my mum and told her that the only language to speak around me was English. My mum was so worried about us not fitting in, she did as she was told.

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Happy kids in Geneva where children learn multiple languages fluently

Realistically, I would have eventually learnt English fairly quickly. In Switzerland most children speak about 3 languages before the time they reach high-school. Also, my dad grew up in London and mum and her family had run English schools in Hong Kong. To this day I am still quite self-conscious of how I speak, at times I still think in French and make mistakes with pronunciations, and I struggle to comprehend some Aussie-isms.

This was 1987. We are now in the start of 2016, so why am I not alone in this story, why are Educators still ordering encouraging families to favour speaking English at home?

When I started teaching, my passion and strong focus was ensuring that my children learnt about themselves and the world around them. That they had a strong sense of identity and could be proud of their history and personal stories.

In 2007 I received an offer to go to Japan and teach at a well-known International Preschool. I was completing my Masters in Early Childhood, Specialising in the Multicultural Classroom and this was such a wonderful opportunity, it was difficult to say no.

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Those unforgettable tatami mats…

I moved to Tokyo, living in a tiny shoebox apartment with tatami mats. This was my home for the next 12 months. The experiences I had in Tokyo were incredible. It was also the loneliest, most challenging overseas experience I have ever had. I could go days without speaking to anyone face-to-face in English.

When I first moved to Japan I did not speak a word of Japanese, I had no family and friends to catch up with and no smart phones to access google translate or maps, and grocery shopping was like playing Russian Roulette.  Once I had settled into work I took Japanese classes two nights a week, and practiced my basic language skills with Japanese co-workers and the guys in the Sunkus Convenience Store. However, I was still drawn to the native-English speaking teachers from the UK, Australia and New Zealand. I was at my happiest when friends and family came to visit.

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Fitting in is more than being a stereotype

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and dressing up as a geisha

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or going to an onsen and wearing a yukata

Now consider a young child who has moved to a new country, who has left everything behind that is familiar and is expected to learn and understand a new language upon arrival. Everything is completely overwhelming, they don’t understand the new routine, they don’t know anyone, names are unknown, even the food that is served is foreign. As an Educator, it is understandable how frustrating those tears and tantrums are, how difficult it is trying to communicate with families – but is it more important for you that the child learns English or that the family feels welcome in their new home?

As only one small part of creating an inclusive classroom, Bicultural Support is a government funded program which provides assistance to services so that children and families can settle into a new centre. A support worker will go out to centres and speak in the child’s mother tongue. The feedback from families, Educators and of course the children, is that this is a wonderful program.

Bicultural Support recently celebrated receiving their 9000th request which is an incredible milestone. Accessing the program is quite simple. Any Long Day Care or Outside of Hours School Care Program can contact their Inclusion Support Agency (ISA) and work with their regions Inclusion Support Facilitator (ISF). Bicultural Support can then be contacted and an Educator can be allocated for up to 12 hours (extensions can be applied for if required).

There are some great resources which can be purchased from the Ethnic Community Services Co-Operative website, in addition, some basic words in Chinese (Mandarin), Arabic and Greek can be accessed from the Survival Words website.

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