Multilingual Literacy Report
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This report provides information and guidance for the development of public and private services to support the literacy of speakers of all languages.
At the end of 2021, there were 458,000 speakers of foreign languages living in Finland, making up 8.3 percent of the country’s population. Speakers of foreign languages are defined as people whose reported language is something other than Finnish, Swedish, or Saami. The number of speakers of foreign languages had increased from the previous year by more than 25,100 people, or 5.8 percent. The most common foreign language in Finland is Russian, which was spoken as a mother tongue by just under 88,000 people in 2021. The second most common foreign language is Estonian, which is spoken by slightly more than 50,000 people. The next largest language groups are Arabic, English, and Somali.
In 2016, 157 different languages were spoken in Finland (Institute for the Languages of Finland, n.d.), but due to ever-changing conditions in the world and human mobility, the percentage of the population that is multilingual is increasing. For that reason, it is necessary to become more aware of multilingual environments and to increase understanding of how to advance children’s positive personal growth, inclusion, equality, and literacy.
Study objectives and execution
The report has been produced in collaboration with daycare centers, libraries, and immigrant organizations, as well as with researchers in the field and the Finnish Network for Language Education Policies (Kieliverkosto). The Network for Language Education Policies is a national language education policy research and development network that brings together actors in the field of language education, increases awareness of the many dimensions of language education, and influences decision-making related to language education in Finland.
The purpose of the study was to investigate the situation of early childhood education and libraries in a multilingual environment, to collect information about existing materials, and to map the needs and perspectives of multilingual families in the development of their children’s literacy. At the same time, we hoped to learn about how families from different language and cultural groups support the development of their children’s literacy in both their home languages and the local language. As a result of this work, we will recommend practices and create materials to support the work of early childhood education, library professionals, and other actors.
The idea behind this report is that when professionals working in multilingual environments have greater awareness of how language and culture relate to literacy, they can better support the development of children’s reading and writing skills.
In this report, a multilingual environment refers to an environment in which one or more languages are used in addition to the local language, such as Finnish or Swedish. The key environments examined in this report are early childhood education (more specifically, daycare centers), libraries, multilingual families, and immigrant organizations. Parents of multilingual families refers here to immigrants who speak a language other than Finnish or Swedish as their home language.
Multiple languages may be used within a family. In this report, home language means the language or languages that are the central everyday languages used in the family instead of or alongside the majority languages. Multilingual literacy refers to a child’s emergent literacy in the languages that are central to his or her everyday life. Multilingual literacy is also the interpretation and production of texts in different languages and language variants (Aerila & Kauppinen, 2020). Here, those languages are the local language, meaning Finnish or Swedish, and the language or languages used at home. Literacy in a broad sense also encompasses multiliteracy, which includes pictures, patterns, symbols, and numbers, for example; these are engaged with already in early childhood education (see, for example, the Lukuinto/Joy of Reading program1).
The objective of this report is to find out what kind of needs exist in multilingual environments to support children’s literacy and what kinds of practices are already in use to maintain and strengthen children’s own home languages and literacy. The report will provide a greater understanding of how multilingual literacy is understood in children’s different environments. This will help different parties understand how they can improve their practices and collaboration to support multilingual literacy. In this way, we can increase language- and culture-aware practices and improve understanding of how literacy can be supported in different environments.
The results of our investigation will provide information on how good practices can be used more widely. The goal is to share information about good practices with those working in multilingual environments and multilingual families, as well as with the organizations that cooperate with them. Because of the importance of early support for language learning and literacy, this investigation has a special focus on early childhood education environments.
1. What kinds of practices are currently being used to support literacy, multilingual literacy, and home languages in children’s different environments?
2. What are the needs, wishes, and challenges in different environments in supporting multilingual literacy?
3. How can the development of multilingual literacy be better supported in the future?
Data was collected via electronic questionnaires and interviews, which were carried out by the research consultancy Innolink. The data was collected during the spring and summer of 2022 from early childhood education professionals, library professionals, and multilingual families and immigrant organizations. Data collection from multilingual families and immigrant organizations was limited to speakers of Arabic, Somali, and Russian, as they represent the largest language groups, alongside Estonian. In this report, we wanted to examine the largest active and close-knit immigrant communities in the cities participating in the study.
More information and collaboration needed in the multilingual environment
In the responses of early childhood education professionals, library professionals, and multilingual families can be found overlapping and mutually supportive factors. For one, the importance of collaboration was emphasized in two ways by each group of respondents. On the one hand, collaboration was considered extremely important, and respondents want to strengthen it. On the other hand, deep and smooth collaboration may be difficult to initiate or sustain because respondents feel the lack of a common language is an obstacle or they lack multilingual practices and materials for smooth collaboration.
The roles of early childhood education and families can be strengthened by increasing parents’ involvement in multilingual collaboration. For its part, early childhood education can increase language-aware practices that take into account children’s multilingual skills. Collaboration between libraries and multilingual families can be increased by introducing families to library culture and to using library services. Additional information can be shared, both through early childhood education and directly from libraries. For this, there is a need for materials that can be distributed in different languages. Libraries and early childhood education can increase their collaboration in many ways. Some concrete ways would be to work together to provide parents with additional information and for both sides to produce lists of the languages available and languages needed. Multilingual organizations can provide support and relay messages in the different environments. It can be concluded that each group of respondents desires clear roles in terms of multilingual literacy work and additional information about how children’s emergent multiliteracy can be supported in both their home languages and the local language, such as Finnish or Swedish.
Parents, early childhood education professionals, libraries, and organizations all wish for closer collaboration. Early childhood education professionals would like more active and systematic work with libraries, and libraries have similar desires for collaboration. Library professionals see opportunities to reach multilingual families through collaboration with early childhood education. Fundamentally, families and early childhood education agree about the distribution of roles in children’s language learning: the role of early childhood education is to ensure that children learn the Finnish language, while the home language is perceived to be mainly the responsibility of families. On the other hand, many families desired further clarification and more support with regard to this role, such as information, methods, and financial help to make use of private tutoring, for example. Equally, it would be useful to strengthen relationships between early childhood education, libraries, and organizations and to assign roles in terms of disseminating information, implementation, and responsible persons. Library professionals and early childhood education need materials that can be used to share information with multilingual families.
Library professionals find it a challenge to reach multilingual families. Multilingual families who use libraries are somewhat satisfied with libraries’ multilingual selections. However, many parents do not use library services, so it should be taken as truth that not all families use library services and that libraries are not familiar to everyone. According to library professionals, parents need information about reading and using the library. Some parents would also like to receive information about multilingualism through libraries. Libraries also wish to collaborate with other actors, such as setting up a reading ambassador program with multilingual organizations.
The interviewed organizations are also interested in collaborating with libraries, daycare centers, and cities. Some of the interviewed parents suggested sharing information about multilingualism through organizations and associations. All parties appeared to be extremely positive about collaboration between families, early childhood education, libraries, and organizations.
Strengthening collaboration strengthens the ability of parents and early childhood education to support multilingual literacy and makes the work of library professionals easier. Such collaboration makes it possible to develop the work done to promote children’s multilingual literacy. In this report, we therefore recommend measures to strengthen multilingual collaboration among early childhood education, libraries, multilingual families, and organizations.
Limited resources cause challenges
Another dominant factor in carrying out multilingual literacy work is the resources available. The current resources prevent what is perceived to be a sufficient level of sustained multilingual collaboration, information, and individual support, both of children in early childhood education and of multilingual families in libraries and early childhood education. It was felt that there is not enough time or staff. Some families also felt that they do not have enough time in their day-to-day lives to invest in igniting children’s joy of reading or in supporting literacy and language development.
Respondents emphasized the inadequacy of resources not only in terms of time but also from the point of view of physical facilities. Their spaces do not allow the formation of small groups for reading or other practices that promote multilingual literacy. Limited shelf space was also noted in the context of acquiring and displaying books in different languages. Resources are limited in terms of daycare centers’ and libraries’ own everyday multilingual activities as well as in the multilingual activities they collaborate on. We therefore recommend practices that can support multilingual activities within the scope of current resources, while also recommending an increase in resources to create better opportunities for multilingual literacy work.
Literacy benefits from the joy of reading. Activities that develop literacy in early childhood education are not limited to reading, but also include child-led activities, creative reading activities, and the discussions or situations that arise from reading. The Joy of Reading perspective can help facilitate activities that support multilingualism and visualization and create tangible reading activities for multilingual children alongside reading. Joy of Reading pedagogy can be both multisensory and multilingual: a text read or listened to in one language can be supported with pictures, singing, music, games, drawing, dancing, or with simple Finnish or support words in different languages. Children can also teach others vocabulary relating to the themes of the Joy of Reading topic in their own languages. (Aerila, 2022.) In this way, awareness of the joy of reading can also be increased among parents of early childhood education–age children. Reading traditions and habits differ among families. When the goal is to develop practices, it is important that these practices are supported in a sensitive way, based on and in accordance with existing values and families’ traditions and habits (Aerila & Kauppinen, 2020).
The Finnish Reading Center plans to:
- Produce materials for library and early childhood education professionals on how to support multilingual literacy.
- Produce and distribute information for multilingual families and organizations about the importance of one’s mother tongue and of reading to children.
- The Finnish Reading Center has already produced and distributed informational material in 19 languages and books in 9 languages. This material can be further developed to better meet the needs of professionals and families.
Recommendations for action:
Add language-aware pedagogy to early childhood education
- A clear objective related to promoting literacy should be added to each child’s Early Childhood Education and Care Plan. It should include a record of how stories are read or told to the child in the languages he or she uses in early childhood education and at home and/or what kind of pedagogy is being used to promote the joy of reading (e.g., Aerila, 2022). A ready-to-use example should be translated into different languages. o Continuing education should be organized for early childhood education professionals to increase language and cultural awareness of multilingual literacy.
- Early childhood education staff should be trained with the help of material produced by the Finnish Reading Center.
- More resources should be directed to early childhood education to support multilingual literacy.
- Daycare centers should acquire more books in different languages. Resources for bilingual books and digital materials should also be increased.
- Materials should be compiled to instruct early childhood education professionals about how to guide parents of multilingual families in supporting their child’s literacy at home.
- More resources should be directed to libraries to support multilingual literacy, to enable them to share multilingual information, and to hire multilingual staff.
- Continuing education should be organized for library professionals to increase language and cultural awareness.
- Library staff should be trained with the help of material produced by the Finnish Reading Center.
- Libraries should organize events or guided tours for families or parents in their own languages.
- Materials that can be used to improve the dissemination of multilingual information should be compiled for libraries.
Families and organizations
- Materials should be compiled for multilingual families to use at home that will provide the necessary information about the importance of reading and of their own home language.
- Organizations should actively get in touch with libraries and suggestions should be made as to how collaboration can be increased or initiated.
- It should be investigated whether it is possible to grant funding to families or organizations for the teaching of early childhood education–age children’s home languages.
Multilingual collaboration between actors
- Concrete tips for initiating and improving multilingual collaboration based on this report should be suggested to different actors.
- Early childhood education and libraries should draw up a shared plan to support children’s multilingual literacy. The plan should include collaboration with immigrant organizations to the extent possible.
- Early childhood education should inform libraries about its needs, and libraries should inform their area’s early childhood education and families about available languages.
- Libraries and early childhood education should distribute the informational material about multilingual literacy produced by the Finnish Reading Center to multilingual families.
- Early childhood education and families should be guided toward a more reciprocal multilingual collaboration to help children learn their home languages and Finnish or Swedish: roles should be clarified and awareness of how both parties can support both the home language and the local language should be increased.
- Routines should be created for sharing good practices.
- Multilingual guardians should be encouraged to get involved: for example, they can read fairy tales or tell stories in different languages and via different channels, such as through videos or on site.
- Libraries and early childhood education should encourage the guardians of multilingual families to read to children.
Multilingualism and diversity are assets. Working together to support them can increase everyone’s well-being, improve personal growth, equality, and inclusion, and create opportunities for constructing identity. We thank every respondent and interviewee who participated in this study. Each person’s voice, experience, and outlook are valuable. We encourage students and researchers to engage with the topic of multilingual literacy and to undertake further research: increasing knowledge improves understanding, which helps to develop and advance the work done to improve literacy as well as multilingual collaboration in support of the development of multilingual literacy.