Researcher: Forcing parents to send their children to nurseries is based on a limited understanding of how language skills develop
In 2014, a consortium started studying how day care programmes might help to promote children’s linguistic development.
The so-called development programme was called ‘Fremtidens Dagtilbud’ [’The Day Care Services of the Future’] and cost DKK 25 million. Unfortunately, the consortium, which included Rambøll and others, noted in an evaluation three years later that the programme had no “... significant impact on the children’s competences.”
Even so, politicians are currently still referring to an interim report about ‘Fremtidens Dagtilbud’, which concluded that: “... some children are two years behind when they start school.”
For example, the Minister for Children and Social Affairs, Mai Mercado of the Conservative Party, used this argument when she proposed the law that one-year-olds from socially vulnerable areas would be forced to go to day care centres if the parents wanted to keep their child benefits cheque. It ended up being decided that bilingual and other children from the so-called ‘ghetto areas’ would be forced to attend day care centres for at least 25 hours per week to, among other things, develop their language skills.
However, if the purpose of this was to promote the children’s linguistic development, it should be based on a better view of the children’s everyday life and a better understanding of linguistics. This is pointed out by Annegrethe Ahrenkiel, who is the Head of The Danish Centre for Research in Early Childhood Education and Care at Roskilde University and who has been working with languages for 20 years:
Among other things, the researcher believes there should be more focus on multilingualism:
“Unlike in Norway and Sweden, in Denmark we do not tend to be particularly focused on multilingualism and what it means for the linguistic development of small children – and we can also see that in the programme. If you strengthen the first language of the child, you also strengthen the ability to learn Danish. It is therefore problematic to put so much focus on all children having the same proficiency in Danish at the same age,” says Annegrethe Ahrenkiel.
“We are not trying to question the fact that there are differences in children’s linguistic development and proficiency, but we want to critically discuss the basis upon which ‘being two years behind’ is made out to be an objective and neutral fact that drives the political discourse and the required initiatives towards certain directions,” the researcher says.
Fremtidens Dagtilbud’ uses a very reading-oriented and written language proficiency view of what languages are
Much communication cannot be measured
The understanding of language that is the basis for concluding that some children lag far behind in their linguistic development before they start school is based on a limited understanding of how linguistic development occurs, Annegrethe Ahrenkiel points out.
“‘Fremtidens Dagtilbud’ uses a very reading-oriented and written language proficiency view of what language is. It is also, unfortunately, a view of language which is very widespread and which is also the basis for the materials used to assess language skills in many institutions and municipalities,” she says.
Annegrethe Ahrenkiel recognises that linguistic development can be supported, but she believes that ‘Fremtidens Dagtilbud’ reduces language to the things that can be tested. It is, however, not everything that can be weighed and measured, she says.
“You can measure vocabulary, but you can’t measure interactions or if we can understand each other even if the wording might be a little clumsy. For little children, pointing and gesticulating and trying out various things is a key part of how they communicate. If the other children don’t understand what they are trying to communicate, then they’ll have to try other methods, and this also helps to develop their language skills.”
Focus on the development of children’s functional phrases
Annegrethe Ahrenkiel believes that the significant reliance on written language in ‘Fremtidens Dagtilbud’ is an example of applying an adult perspective to children’s linguistic development.
“Adults understand language as speech that is written down, but the written language can only capture a limited part of the spoken language. For example, intonation is not part of the written language. In ‘Fremtidens Dagtilbud’, the focus is on rhymes, vocabulary and paying attention to writing. For example, children have to answer questions about the direction of reading and point to the picture showing outdoor clothes. When you test children, no points are given for making new associations, as children often do when they play, or, for example, pointing towards a sweater in stead of a jacket when they were told to point at the picture showing outdoor clothes”, says Annegrethe Ahrenkiel, who believes that one should focus more on strengthening children’s language in interaction with each other.
“You could argue that strengthening children’s languages should be oriented more towards developing functional phrases in spoken language rather than comparing the differences in children’s knowledge of individual words and other written language characteristics,” she says.
Another problem with the understanding of language in the ‘Fremtidens Dagtilbud’ project is that the norms are based on children from the upper middle class – among other things, due to the fact that their parents are more likely to agree to participate in the studies that the norm is based on. That is why other children automatically deviate from an artificial norm
Stop talking about normalising children’s level of linguistic development
Annegrethe Ahrenkiel is sceptical about whether or not one can talk about being two years behind at such an early age – for example, two years behind compared to what?
“Children are very different and develop at different speeds and directions with their own individual strengths and weaknesses. When you decide to establish a norm, then by definition, there will be deviations from that norm. In that case, is the linguistic development of the children who deviate from that norm abnormal or wrong?”, asks Annegrethe Ahrenkiel rhetorically.
“Another problem with the understanding of language in the ‘Fremtidens Dagtilbud’ project is that the norms are based on children from the upper middle class – among other things, due to the fact that their parents are more likely to agree to participate in the studies that the norm is based on. That is why other children automatically deviate from an artificial norm,” the researcher points out.
You need to ensure a good linguistic environment
According to Annegrethe Ahrenkiel, there is a need for better understanding of how children communicate with each other and adults - and to use this understanding to encourage children to communicate more.
At the Danish Centre for Research in Early Childhood Education and Care, she is, together with Lars Holm from DPU, currently working on a study investigating how children communicate with each other in the institutions.
“We can see that children use far more time speaking to each other than speaking with the adults. Therefore, one should also look at how one can encourage children to communicate better with each other,” says Annegrethe Ahrenkiel.
The centre’s research reveals that the institution’s rules and routines often interrupt the children’s communication with each other. In order to promote linguistic development, one should also look at how the institutions are furnished or decorated, which is a very significant factor.
“We can see that children who are sitting by the window are talking about what is going on outside, while the children sitting in areas where not as much is going on are quieter. This shows that you can make children more likely to communicate with each other by looking at, for example, how the institutions are furnished or decorated,” says Ahrenkiel.
Children communicate differently with each other than with adults
The research into day care institutions also reveal that children support each other’s language in an entirely different manner than when they communicate with adults.
“For example, they’ll use play language and repeat sounds. It is a much more sensory perception of language. Teasing is also a form of communication, and something they use to learn how far they can go in a given situation. In communication with adults, it’s very much about sticking to the rules,” says Annegrethe Ahrenkiel.
She encourages the politicians to look at the new day care act in order to find inspiration for how to actively work with children’s language and linguistic development.
“Some of what is written in the law on day care offers is that one should work holistically and not view language as an isolated issue. It is also points out that the focal point should be play, and that one should remember that childhood in itself has value.”
The ghetto plan will enter into force in the summer of 2019.
Annegrethe Ahrenkiel has, together with Lars Holm from DPU, published an article on the understanding of language in ‘Fremtidens Dagtilbud’ in the Norwegian journal ‘Barn - forskning om barn og barndom i Norden.’
Published in Rubrik #15, 2019