The report Starting Strong: Nurturing the potential of Asian under-fives looks at the rapidly increasing Asian under-five population, their home environment, as well as the response of Early Childhood Education (ECE) centres to this changing demographic.

“It is important to recognise the benefits of having these children with diverse languages and cultures growing up in New Zealand given Asia’s growing relevance,” says Simon Draper, executive director of Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Almost one in five children under five in New Zealand are now of Asian ethnicity. Between 2001 and 2013, this demographic almost doubled from 18,378 to 35,898.

While families of Asian ethnicity in New Zealand place great importance on their heritage, culture and language, researchers say parents notice that as soon as children start school, English becomes the main language at home and their heritage language is used less.

“We hear from employers that New Zealand’s present and future workforce needs to be confident and competent in engaging with Asia and Asian peoples,” says Draper.

“This report tells us children are entering our school system with a head start – bringing cultural knowledge and language skills that will be a real advantage when they enter the workforce 15–20 years from now.

“What are we collectively doing to grow and nurture these skills? What are we doing to encourage their friends and classmates to learn from them? This is not about choosing one language over another. There is no reason these children cannot learn English and at the same time retain their heritage language,” he says.

The other bookend of the schooling system

In July last year, the Foundation released a related report on the Asia engagement of school leavers – the other end of the schooling system. Losing Momentum shows only eight per cent of senior secondary students are ‘Asia-ready’ and six out of 10 did not consider Asia-related skills and knowledge important for New Zealand’s future workforce.

“Our data suggests that our education system, whānau and communities are not doing enough to support the development of Asia-related skills for our school leavers. We invested in Starting Strong because we wanted to get a clearer picture on what was happening at the beginning of the education pipeline – what are we doing to maintain the skills of our Asian under-fives as they enter the education system?” says Draper.

Parents’ expectations

According to Starting Strong, Asian parents consider it their responsibility to teach their child their heritage culture and language. They do not expect ECE centres to do this.

Researchers also found that many Asian parents requested that English be spoken at ECE centres, even when bilingual teachers were available. Parents believe English fluency is essential for children making a smooth transition to school.

ECE response

While ECE centres acknowledge the importance of retaining children’s heritage languages and cultures, the report says there are barriers in this process including constraints on time, resources and availability of bilingual teachers.

What can be done

“Together with officials, providers, the community, the families, and other key stakeholders in the ECE sector, we need to come up with a deliberate and coordinated approach to ensure the language skills and cultural understanding of these children are not lost,” Draper adds.

Data shows there is widespread support for children speaking more than one language. Draper says the adoption of a National Languages Policy would assist in growing a ‘languages culture’ within New Zealand where children speak more than one language, as it is in majority of countries in the world.

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